I recently read an article about a book of words that English should have but doesn’t. (I tried to find it, and discovered there must be a million articles on the subject, so I suggest you do a search on “words not in English” or a similar phrase and go surfing. You’ll even find quite a few if you limit yourself to Scientific American.
Which brings us to a philosophical question: If English doesn’t have a word, can we even think the thought that the word represents? Yes! We use a circumlocution.
A circumlocution is a way of describing something without using the actual word; saying the word’s definition, as it were, or a metaphor of some kind for what the word is about. Usually we think of a circumlocution as a way to avoid using an embarrassing word; we sometimes call these euphemisms or “beating around the bush.”
It turns out English is full of idioms that are circumlocutions; today at breakfast I used a circumlocution and got teased about it; I decided this expression was a good subject to write a post about.
Four of us were enjoying breaking our nighttime fast (circumlocution for breakfast) and the coffee flowed generously (circumlocution for I drank a lot of coffee). Presently I had to get up, and I said, “Excuse me, I need to go use the men’s room.” (an obvious circumlocution for, um, what I intended to do in there (another circumlocution)). My buddy said, “Hope everything comes out all right.” (another one) And everyone laughed. This exchange would make no sense to anyone from a culture that had no taboos on scatology, but it made perfect sense to us American English speakers.
If you listen for them, I bet you’ll hear lots of circumlocutions in normal conversation.
And because I like to include pictures in my posts, I did a search on “men’s room comics” and found this example of not intending a circumlocution: