“Pomp and Ceremony” or “Pomp and Circumstance?”

By Maeve Maddox

Kathleen Babbs writes:

When I was growing up in England, the phrase “pomp and ceremony” was used when describing exciting pageantry and celebrations.

Nowadays I hear most commentators using “pomp and circumstance” even when talking about royal events. This makes no sense to me, unless they are referring to the Elgar marches that are often played.

I’ve seen many changes during my eighty years and frequently have trouble keeping up with it all. A comment would be appreciated.

The merging of the meaning of ceremony with circumstance in the expression pomp and circumstance is a curious case of “what goes around comes around”.

The word ceremony entered the language in the fourteenth century. It means “the performance of some solemn act according to prescribed form.” It derives from from Medieval Latin ceremonia, from Latin cærimonia “awe, reverent rite.”

Pomp and ceremony is therefore an appropriate phrase to use in speaking about a coronation, a state funeral, or the launching of a battleship.

The word circumstance comes from a Latin word meaning “surrounding condition.”

According to the common modern meaning, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to group “circumstance” with “pomp.” Circumstance is any condition or fact attending an event and having some bearing on it, while pomp is a “splendid display or celebration; magnificent show or ceremony.”

This is where the wheel of usage comes in.

Circumstance has an obsolete meaning of “formality about an important event.” This meaning was still current in Shakespeare’s day.

Othello, bemoaning the supposed infidelity of Desdemona, sees his world crumbling:

Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,

The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife;

The royal banner, and all quality,

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

In 1901, Sir Edward Elgar wrote some marches suitable for royal ceremonial occasions. He took his title for them–Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches–from Othello’s speech. The march we know as “Pomp and Circumstance” was used for the coronation of King Edward VII.

In the context of Othello’s speech, and therefore in the now frequently heard expression “pomp and circumstance,” circumstance has the meaning “formality that accompanies an important event.”

Judging by the results of my inevitable Google search, pomp and ceremony continues to be the phrase of choice with writers of British English.

Related post: Breaking the Lockjam and Buttoning Down the Hatches

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6 Responses to ““Pomp and Ceremony” or “Pomp and Circumstance?””

  • spike1

    Odd…
    I’ve never heard the term “Pomp and ceremony”.
    It’s always been “pomp and circumstance” IME.

  • Brad K.

    I think the title of the typical graduation march – Pomp and Circumstance – has bled over to mean the entire concept of holding a ceremony. The name change from pomp and ceremony is less about a migration of terms – most people won’t worry about what “pomp” means, enough to consider what “pomp and circumstance” means. It is mostly a proper name that became colloquial.

    Especially so, since the high school graduation program lists “Pomp and Circumstance”, and often only the orchestra or organ player (or CD operator) knows this is the name of an actual piece of music. Everyone else just hums along to “My rainbow is purple, yours is a pea green. I just love your rainbow, da, da, da-da,da da . . .”. lol!

  • Peter

    Of course, everyone in the English-speaking world (as opposed to American) hums along to “Land of Hope and Glory // Mother of the Free // How shall we extol thee // Who are born of thee?”

    I always find it slightly amusing that Americans play a piece of music praising British colonial expansion at all their graduations.

  • Brad K.

    Peter. Why, we Americans just hum different words, and it doesn’t mean the same thing at all.

    Why, to hear the British tell it, our “Star Spangled Banner” might have been set to some old drinking song. Why, the very idea!

  • Glenn

    I was told that a maitre’d taking his time giving us a table, obviously there were many around us, was called pomp and circumstance. Can anyone shed some light on this for me?

  • Paul Roux

    I found the answers very useful! As an Afrikaans-speaking South African, I was never sure which one to use, so I tended to use them interchangeably, hoping that I do not sound ignorant. My interest in this is solely because I love Elgar’s music – and his march “Pomp and Circumstance” was the one that floored me – linguistically speaking!

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