Q: An article about the ceremonies following Queen Elizabeth’s death referred to the “pomp and circumstance” involved. “Pomp” I get, but what’s with “circumstance”? It doesn’t have the usual meaning (fact, condition, event).
A: An archaic meaning of “circumstance” refers to a ceremony or public display at an important event, a usage that survives in the phrase “pomp and circumstance.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines that sense of “circumstance” as “the ‘ado’ made about anything; formality, ceremony, about any important event or action.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the “The Knight’s Tale,” the first of The Canterbury Tales (1386) of Chaucer: “His sacrifice he dide and that anon fful pitously with alle circumstance.”
The OED says the expression “pomp and circumstance” echoes Othello’s farewell to “Pride, pompe, and circumstance of glorious warre” (from Shakespeare’s Othello, written in the early 1600s and first published in 1623).
The dictionary’s earliest example for the exact wording “pomp and circumstance” is from The Bashful Lover, a play by Philip Massinger written sometime before 1640: “The Minion of his Prince and Court, set off / With all the pomp and circumstance of greatness.”
The dictionary adds that “the prevalence of the particular form pomp and circumstance is probably due to the popular military marches composed (from 1901) by Edward Elgar with this subtitle.”
As for the earlier etymology, the noun “circumstance” ultimately comes from the Classical Latin circumstantia (standing around, surrounding condition). The Latin term is the present participle of circumstare (to stand around), which combines circum (around) and stare (to stand).
When the word showed up in Middle English, it was used in the plural to mean the surroundings or conditions in which an action takes place. The earliest Oxford example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:
“Abute sunne liggeð six þinges. þet hit hulieð. o latin circumstances. on englis totagges muȝe beon icleoped. Persone. stude. time. Manere. tale. cause” (“About sin there lie six things that conceal it: person, place, time, manner, telling, cause—in Latin circumstances, in English, they may be called trappings that obscure”).
Many other senses have appeared over the years, including “circumstances” that make an act more or less criminal (1580), an incident or “circumstance” in a narrative (1592), living in easy or reduced “circumstances” (before 1704), and something that’s a mere “circumstance” (1838).