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The meaning and origin of the expression: Pomp and circumstance

Pomp and circumstance

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Pomp and circumstance'?

An ostentatious display of ceremonial grandeur.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Pomp and circumstance'?

I've recently been watching a film of the Globe's Theatre's excellent production of Othello. Like most etymologists I suffer from a condition which causes an "I wonder where that came from" siren to hoot in my head whenever I hear an unusual phrase. Act III, scene III contains such a phrase - 'pomp and circumstance'. I had previously only known that expression as the title of Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches and I wondered if I might be able to add it to my list of phrases and sayings from Shakespeare. It turns out that I can, although, as so often with Shakespeare, the story isn't completely straightforward.

Before we look at the origin, let's look at the phrase. 'Pomp' is a well-known word, albeit rather archaic, meaning 'splendid display or celebration; magnificent show or ceremony'. It is borrowed from Latin and French and the English, diffident creatures that we are, have added the negative form 'pompous' to use when the show turns into showiness.

Pomp and circumstanceThe OED have a useful measure that indicates how common each word is in current usage and I was surprised to see that 'pomp' rates moderately highly and so isn't as archaic as I thought. There's a musical reason for that, and it isn't entirely due to Elgar. Around about 1980 there was a fashion for a type of posturing overblown glam-rock which was labelled 'pomp-rock' (think mullets and dry ice). The music may have gone out of fashion but the word pomp gained a sustaining shot in the arm because of it.

As to 'circumstance', it's currently used to mean 'surroundings - of an action or a situation' - the place where circumstantial evidence comes from, if you will. In Shakespeare's day, there was another meaning, which was 'the ‘ado’ made about anything; ceremony, about any important event or action'. He might well have opted to title another of his plays 'Much Circumstance About Nothing', but perhaps was wise not to have.

So, we now have the Tudor meaning of 'pomp and circumstance', what about the origin?

The line that Othello speaks in the 1616 play is:

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

That's not quite the expression as we use it now, due to the stray comma, The earliest use of the precise current phrase is from Philip Massinger's play Bashful Lover, written in or about 1640 and published a few years later:

The Minion of his Prince and Court, set off With all the pomp and circumstance of greatness.

Pomp and circumstanceThat may seem to have pipped Shakespeare to the post. However, we know a few things about Massinger. Firstly, he lived across the road from the original Globe Theatre and would have had the opportunity to see the original performances of Othello - the play was performed there many times by Shaespeare's acting troupe The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. We also know that Massinger was extensively influenced by Shakespeare (as any playwright who lived a stone's throw from the Globe in Shakespeare's lifetime would have been). T.S. Eliot went to the trouble of writing an essay which lays out Massinger debt to Shakespeare, which includes the telling line:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

All in all, the credit for coining 'pomp and circumstance' must go to Shakespeare, if we allow Massinger the credit of removing a comma.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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