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Q From Moshe Haven: I work for the Federal Government. At the end of a presentation the other day, on a regulation from the Office of Management and Budget, the speaker asked if anyone knew why such regulations were called circulars. She explained that in the early days of the Republic such regulations went out on paper that was scrolled up to look like a tube. Do you have any idea if this was actually the derivation of the term for government regulations for Federal agencies being called circulars?

A Assuming the speaker wasn’t having a bit of quiet fun, that’s a splendid example of popular etymology, one to add to my collection. You might as well argue that circulars are called that because they were originally printed on round pieces of paper.

The origin of their name is as straightforward as you could want. Circular was originally an adjective in phrases like circular letter. Certain types of missives came to be called that because they were circulated among a group of people. Presumably it began because each in turn read it and passed it to the next recipient, eventually returning it to the original sender (think of office documents with a distribution list attached). But by the time of the first known example, in Bishop Brian Walton’s The Considerator Considered of 1659, the idea of individual copies being despatched to a list of recipients is presumably meant: “Their chief Priest ... sends circular letters to the rest about their solemn feasts.”

In time, the phrase circular letter came to be abbreviated. When Henry Todd produced an updated version of Dr Johnson’s dictionary in 1818, he added what we would now call a usage note to the entry on circular letter: “Modern affectation has changed this expression into the substantive; and we now hear of nothing but circulars from publick offices, and circulars from superintendants of a feast or club.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Jun. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 10 June 2006.