Printable Version
Pronunciation: sêr-kêm-stæns Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Contributing or determining factor, factor(s) surrounding a particular event, as to be a victim of circumstances. 2. Financial means, as a person of substantial circumstances. 3. Celebratory ceremony, as in pomp and circumstance.

Notes: We have to treat the grammatical number of today's Good Word carefully. The second sense is almost always used in the plural. The third sense is never used in the plural, as the example there demonstrates. The adjective accompanying this word is circumstantial. It has a specific meaning in a court of law: "not definitive or conclusive", as is circumstantial evidence.

In Play: The first sense is the one most widely used: "What were the circumstances leading up to your being grounded for a month?" The second sense is much less often heard or read: "Jason was born into a noble family of reduced circumstances." The third sense is almost never heard except in the phrase pomp and circumstance: "Gladys Friday was promoted to sales manager without an inkling of circumstance."

Word History: Today's Good Word originated as Old French circonstance "circumstance, situation", inherited from Latin circumstantia "surrounding condition". This word came from the present participle of circumstare "to surround, encompass, occupy". Circumstare is a compound verb comprising circum "around" + stare "to stand". The same root ended up in English as stand, steed, stage, and stalwart, among others. Circum was borrowed from Greek kirkos "ring" by the Romans. They not only borrowed this word as an adverb and preposition, but as a noun, too: circus "circus, circle". Since Roman arenas were circular (or oval) like circus tents in England and the US, English picked up that one, too. (We are happy that circumstances allowed Norman Holler to step forward and suggest today's very Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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