General English


  • An entertainment featuring acrobats and other skilled performers,clowns, and animals. In ancient Rome the word circus (meaningring) referred both to the arena and to the athletic contests, chariotraces, gladiatorial combats, acrobatics, wrestling, etc., that tookplace there. Wild animals were first exhibited in 186 BCat the Circus Maximus and were soon employed to fight one anotheror humans.

    When the modern circus developed in Britain in the late 18thcentury the main emphasis was on equestrian feats. The famous barebackrider Philip Astley found that riding in a circle created a centrifugalforce that aided balance. He devised the horse ring and in 1769 openedAstley's amphitheatre in London, soon adding clowns and acrobats.The name 'circus' was first used in the modern sense in 1782, whenthe Royal Circus was established by Charles Hughes, a former riderat Astley's.

    John William Ricketts opened America's first circuses in 1793in Philadelphia and New York. When travelling fairground performerssaw the popularity of this new entertainment, the first tented circuseswere created. In Europe, where circus managers preferred permanentbuildings, close associations with the theater were retained. In the18th century aquatic drama and dog drama were developedin Paris while equestrian drama was highly popular in Britain.

    The horse remained the mainstay of the circus until the mid19th century, when menageries were added. The flying trapeze, inventedin 1859, soon became a regular feature.

    The late 19th century saw an increase in spectacular shows.The US showman P. T. Barnum went into the circus businessin 1870; ten years later he combined with James Bailey and in 1881the two introduced the first three-ringed circus. The Greatest Showon Earth, as it became known, toured Europe between 1899 and 1902with a 60-coach circus train. Acts included trapeze artists, acrobats,jugglers, wire-walkers, stilt-walkers, clowns, performing horses,elephants, lions and tigers, sea lions, dogs, and other animals. Barnumand Bailey's was bought by their main competitor, the Ringling BrothersCircus, in 1907. In 1956 Ringling's gave up its vast 'Big Top' tentfor permanent buildings.

    Recent protests about the use of performing animals have ledto some circuses using only human acts, such as juggling and acrobatics.The late 1980s and 1990s also saw the advent of 'alternative' circus,as represented by the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil and the anarchicFrench troupe Archaos.


  • noun a travelling show, often given under a large tent, with animals, clowns, acrobats, etc.

Origin & History of “circus”

Latin circus meant literally ‘ring, circle’, but it was applied metaphorically by the Romans to the circular arena in which performances and contests were held. That was the original signification of the word in English, applied in a strictly antiquarian sense to the ancient world, and it was not until the late 18th century that it began to be used for any circular arena and the entertainment staged therein.

The Latin word is related to, and may have come from, Greek kírkos; and it is also connected with Latin curvus, source of English curve. It has additionally been linked with Latin corōna ‘circlet’, from which English gets crown. And it is of course, via its accusative form circum, the starting point of a wide range of English words with the prefix circum-, from circumference to circumvent (in this category is circuit (14th c.), which goes back to an original Latin compound verb circumīre, literally ‘go round’).