The Grammarphobia Blog

Circular reasoning

Q: Can you explain how a leaflet or newspaper insert came to be called a “circular”? I’ve always wondered about this.

A: A leaflet or newspaper insert is called a “circular” because it was originally intended to circulate—to make the rounds among a circle of people.

The noun was born in the early 19th century as an abbreviated form of a much earlier phrase, “circular letter,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A “circular letter,” the OED says, was defined by Samuel Johnson in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as “a letter directed to several persons, who have the same interest in some common affair.”

Here, the adjective “circular” means “affecting or relating to a circle or number of persons,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest citation for “circular letter” (sometimes called a “circular epistle” or “circular note”) is from a biblical commentary, The Considerator Considered (1659), by Brian Walton, Bishop of Chester:

“Their chief Priest … sends circular letters to the rest about their solemn feasts.”

The phrase survived until well into the 19th century, especially in historical references. This example is from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The History of England From the Accession of James II (1849):

“Circular letters, imploring them to sign, were sent to every corner of the kingdom.”

Meanwhile, in ordinary usage the expression had become shortened to “circular” by the early 1800s.

Although it began as an abbreviated form of “circular letter,” the OED says, its meaning is “now esp. a business notice or advertisement, printed or otherwise reproduced in large numbers for distribution.”

Henry John Todd, who edited an 1818 edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, didn’t take kindly to the use of “circular” as a noun. The OED quotes from Todd’s entry for “circular letter”:

“Modern affectation has changed this expression into the substantive; and we now hear of nothing but circulars from publick offices, and circulars from superintendants of a feast or club.”

Common usage won out, as it always does. As Lord Byron wrote in a letter in 1822: “The Circulars are arrived and circulating.”

If your head isn’t spinning in circles by now and you’d like to read more, we had a posting a few years ago about whether a circular argument is a “vicious circle” or a “vicious cycle.”

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