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Pronounced /sɜːkəmˈbɛndɪbəs/Help with IPA

We have bendy buses in some of our major cities these days, double-length monsters with a flexible connection in the middle. But it was a taxi that last transported me on a circumbendibus, an expensive one. The word was created in the late seventeenth century as humorous fake Latin — meaning a roundabout process or method, a twist or turn or circumlocution — from circum-, around, plus English bend, plus the Latin ending -ibus (which, neatly bringing us all full circle, is also the ending of omnibus and so is the source of bus).

An example from the eighteenth century is in Oliver Goldsmith’s play She Stoops to Conquer: “I first took them down Feather-bed Lane, where we stuck fast in the mud. I then rattled them crack over the stones of Up-and-down Hill. I then introduced them to the gibbet on Heavy-tree Heath; and from that, with a circumbendibus, I fairly lodged them in the horse-pond at the bottom of the garden.”

Sir Walter Scott had fun with it, putting these words into the mouth of one of his characters:

But without further tyranny over my readers, or display of the extent of my own reading, I shall content myself with borrowing a single incident from the memorable hunting at Lude, commemorated in the ingenious Mr. Gunn’s essay on the Caledonian Harp, and so proceed in my story with all the brevity that my natural style of composition, partaking of what scholars call the periphrastic and ambagitory, and the vulgar the circumbendibus, will permit me.

Waverley, by Sir Walter Scott, 1814. He seems to have invented that word ambagitory, with the same meaning, and used it in another of his novels, Woodstock.

Circumbendibus has never quite vanished, a few modern authors loving the sound of it enough to risk perplexing their readers.

Page created 25 Mar. 2006

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 25 March 2006.