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Circus: Some Agree It Is the 'Greatest Show on Earth'

How a simple word came to mean a place of fun and wonder. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Now, the Special English program WORDS AND THEIR STORIES.


Circus is a word with a long, interesting history. It is a Latin word that means "ring" or "circle."

One of the most famous places in ancient Rome was the Circus Maximus. It was a kind of round stadium with rows of seats all around the inside of it. Roman citizens gathered there to watch races, games and violent, bloody fights.

The modern circus developed in the nineteenth century. It was a travelling show of animals and people working under a large tent, later known as the Big Top.

Travelling circuses were popular in the United States and Britain before eighteen thirty. A circus moved from town to town, putting on shows with trained animals, acrobats doing difficult tricks, and funny, colorful clowns.

Circuses still travel from place to place. And they still have trained animal acts, acrobats and clowns.

Today's circuses usually have three rings. Something different takes place in each of the three rings at the same time. The heads of people watching a circus turn back and forth as they try to see every exciting act in each ring.

The circus has been popular for so long that it is not surprising that words and expressions connected with it are part of everyday speech.

For example, the word circus is used to describe any noisy place with a lot of activities going on.

A teacher may use it when she walks into a room where the students are playing and talking, instead of studying. She might say, "This place is a circus. Calm down and get your work done." And if the room is really noisy, she may say it is a three ring circus.

Clowns are a very special part of the circus. They look funny with their big red noses, painted faces and clothes that are much too large for them. Everyone at a circus loves to watch the clowns do tricks on each other. Clowns have a real purpose: to make people laugh. They always succeed.

We use the expression to clown around when we talk about someone playing tricks and making jokes. Usually, a person is clowning around if he is being funny when he should be serious. In that case, you may get angry and say, "Stop clowning around. This is a serious situation."

The most celebrated American circus in the eighteen hundreds was P. T. Barnum's "Greatest Show on Earth." Barnum's circus had many new acts. He began finding and training unusual animals, not just dogs and horses.

One of the most popular of Barnum's animals was a huge elephant named Jumbo. Jumbo was very large, much larger than other elephants. Soon, anything that was the largest of its kind was called jumbo.

Today, there are jumbo drinks, jumbo boxes of soap, and jumbo sales of cars.


This Special English WORDS AND THEIR STORIES program was written by Marilyn Rice Christiano. This is Bob Doughty.