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[sur-kuh s] /ˈsɜr kəs/
noun, plural circuses.
a large public entertainment, typically presented in one or more very large tents or in an outdoor or indoor arena, featuring exhibitions of pageantry, feats of skill and daring, performing animals, etc., interspersed throughout with the slapstick antics of clowns.
Compare big top.
a troupe of performers, especially a traveling troupe, that presents such entertainments, together with officials, other employees, and the company's performing animals, traveling wagons, tents, cages, and equipment.
a circular arena surrounded by tiers of seats, in which public entertainments are held; arena.
  1. a large, usually oblong or oval, roofless enclosure, surrounded by tiers of seats rising one above another, for chariot races, public games, etc.
  2. an entertainment given in this Roman arena, as a chariot race or public game:
    The Caesars appeased the public with bread and circuses.
anything resembling the Roman circus, or arena, as a natural amphitheater or a circular range of houses.
British. an open circle, square, or plaza where several streets converge:
Piccadilly Circus.
fun, excitement, or uproar; a display of rowdy sport.
Obsolete. a circlet or ring.
Origin of circus
1350-1400; Middle English < Latin: circular region of the sky, oval space in which games were held, akin to (or borrowed from) Greek kírkos ring, circle
Related forms
circusy, adjective Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015.
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Examples from the Web for circus
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • He was not merely a big snake, I thought—he was a circus monstrosity.

    My Antonia Willa Cather
  • In his present rôle he would have made an excellent clown in a circus ring.

    Four Young Explorers Oliver Optic
  • They were like a lot of children on the morning of circus day.

    Perkins of Portland Ellis Parker Butler
  • People will continue to starve so long as they are content with a circus and a bread-line.

    The Root of Evil Thomas Dixon
  • Ask any circus man when he sleeps, and he will say, “In the winter time.”

    The Autobiography of a Clown Isaac Frederick Marcosson
British Dictionary definitions for circus


noun (pl) -cuses
a travelling company of entertainers such as acrobats, clowns, trapeze artistes, and trained animals
a public performance given by such a company
an oval or circular arena, usually tented and surrounded by tiers of seats, in which such a performance is held
a travelling group of professional sportsmen: a cricket circus
(in ancient Rome)
  1. an open-air stadium, usually oval or oblong, for chariot races or public games
  2. the games themselves
  1. an open place, usually circular, in a town, where several streets converge
  2. (capital when part of a name): Piccadilly Circus
(informal) noisy or rowdy behaviour
(informal) a person or group of people whose behaviour is wild, disorganized, or (esp unintentionally) comic
Word Origin
C16: from Latin, from Greek kirkos ring
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for circus

late 14c., in reference to ancient Rome, from Latin circus "ring, circular line," which was applied by Romans to circular arenas for performances and contests and oval courses for racing (especially the Circus Maximus), from or cognate with Greek kirkos "a circle, a ring," from PIE *kirk- from root *(s)ker- "to turn, bend" (see ring (n.)).

In reference to modern large arenas for performances from 1791; sense then extended to the performing company, hence "traveling show" (originally traveling circus, 1838). Extended in World War I to squadrons of military aircraft. Meaning "lively uproar, chaotic hubbub" is from 1869. Sense in Picadilly Circus and other place names is from early 18c. sense "buildings arranged in a ring," also "circular road." The adjective form is circensian.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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Slang definitions & phrases for circus



  1. Any bright and uproarious occasion: You should have been there—it was a circus (1885+)
  2. sex show, often featuring bestial couplings (1870s+)
The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition by Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD. and Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D.
Copyright (C) 2007 by HarperCollins Publishers.
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Idioms and Phrases with circus


The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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