Jun 15, 2016

Etymology Expeditions: Let's Go to the Circus

Up this week, circus-related words.

The word circus is from the late 14th century, a reference to the Roman circus, Latin for "circle, ring." The Romans used them for performances, contests, and horse-racing. The Latin word is preceded by the Greek kirkus. The meaning of "traveling show" is only from 1896. What about Piccadilly Circus? Well, that just means buildings arranged in a ring. This usage is from the early 18th century. Did you know there's also an adjective form, circensian?

Juggler comes from Old English geogelere "magician, conjurer," also from Anglo-French jogleour, where we also get jongleur. The word's origins are in the Latin ioculari "to joke, to jest." Apparently the connection between magic and juggling is dexterity.

The word acrobat is pretty young in English, only from 1825, but its roots also go back to the Greeks.  The English version comes from 14th century French acrobate, from Greek akrobates "rope dancer, gymnastic performer," which is related to akrobatos "going on tip-toe," from akros "topmost" + bainein "walk, go."

Okay, let's bring in the clowns. Clown is from the 1560s, meaning "rustic, boor, peasant." Origin is uncertain, but it might be from Scandinavia, maybe Icelandic klunni "clumsy, boorish fellow," Swedish kluns, Danish klunt"log, block," and North Frisian klönne. The meaning of "professional fool" is from around 1600.



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