Our website is named after The Circumlocution Office, a fictitious governmental department featured in the Charles Dickens novel Little Dorrit. Dickens took an existing word in the English language, circumlocution, and applied it to satirise that department.

Definition of Circumlocution.

The word circumlocution describes the use of an unnecessarily amount of words to get to the point, where just a a few would do.

 The Oxford English Dictionary defines circumlocution as either:

  • Speaking in a roundabout or indirect way; the use of several words instead of one, or many instead of few. Formerly used of grammatical periphrasis; but now only of rhetorical.
  • A phrase or sentence in which circumlocution is used; a roundabout expression.

Leading American online dictionary Merriam-Webster gives its definition as either:

  • The use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea
  • Evasion in speech

Origins.

The term circumlocution has its origins in the Middle English circumlocucyon, from Latin circumlocution-, circumlocutio, from circum- + locutio speech, from loqui to speak, and was first recorded in the 15th century.

Use of the term Circumlocution Office.

The term Circumlocution Office was first coined by Charles Dickens in his novel Little Dorrit to describe, and parody, the government bureaucracy of the day.

In Book 1, Chapter 10 of Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam visits a government department called the Circumlocution Office trying to find out about the case against a man called William Dorrit, who has been imprisoned for debt. He is passed from official to official trying to find a satisfactory answer. The officials in charge of the department are typified by the nepotic and self-serving upper-class Barnacle family, who revel in obfuscation and red tape. Charles Dickens deliberately introduced the Circumlocution Office into the novel to parody civil service mismanagement. At the time Dickens was writing and publishing the early chapters of Little Dorrit there was a public outcry at government mismanagement of the Crimean War, a conflict that had started in October 1853 between Russia and an alliance that included Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. Graphic descriptions had appeared in the British press of troops serving in the war suffering from disease, hunger and neglect. The alarming reports of mismanagement led to an enquiry by a parliamentary select committee. Public opposition culminated in a riot on Sunday, 21 January 1855, in London’s Trafalgar Square. Less than two weeks later the government, a coalition of political factions under the leadership of Lord Aberdeen, fell and the Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, took over as the new Prime Minister. The Crimean War ended with the signing of The Treaty of Paris in March 1856. Little Dorrit was serialized in twenty monthly parts from December 1855 through to June 1857, followed shortly after by the whole novel in one volume.

It being one of the principles of the Circumlocution Office never, on any account whatever, to give a straightforward answer.


Little Dorrit. Book 1, Chapter 10.

Legacy.

Over 150 years after Charles Dickens first used it,  the term Circumlocution Office is still used to ridicule governmental bureaucracy where business is delayed by passing through the hands of different officials.

Headline from a 2011 newspaper article illustrating contemporary use of the term Circumlocution Office in an article calling for government bureaucratic reform.

No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office.


Little Dorrit. Book 1, Chapter 10.

Slide It being one of the principles of the Circumlocution Office never, on any account whatever, to give a straightforward answer. Slide Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT. Slide Slide Slide We must have humbug, we all like humbug, we couldn’t get on without humbug. Slide Slide The Department is accessible to the Public, if the Public approaches it according to the official forms; if the Public does not approach it according to the official forms, the Public has itself to blame.

Quotations from our archive on the theme of Circumlocution Office.