vicious cycle (follow-up to today's class)

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Mar 7 19:44:14 UTC 2007

from Brians's Common Errors:

vicious/viscous circle/cycle

The term “vicious circle” was invented by logicians to describe a
form of fallacious circular argument in which each term of the
argument draws on the other: “Democracy is the best form of
government because democratic elections produce the best
governments.” The phrase has been extended in popular usage to all
kinds of self-exacerbating processes such as this: poor people often
find themselves borrowing money to pay off their debts, but in the
process create even more onerous debts which in their turn will need
to be financed by further borrowing. Sensing vaguely that such
destructive spirals are not closed loops, people have transmuted
“vicious circle” into “vicious cycle.” The problem with this
perfectly logical change is that a lot of people know what the
original “correct” phrase was and are likely to scorn users of the
new one. They go beyond scorn to contempt however toward those poor
souls who render the phrase as “viscous cycle.” Don’t use this
expression unless you are discussing a Harley-Davidson in dire need
of an oil change.


to recap from class:

"vicious" 'faulty' as used by logicians, from 1589 in OED (surely
translated from Latin)

"circle" 'fallacy of circular reasoning' as used by logicians, from
1646 in OED (probably also translated from Latin)

"vicious circle/spiral" as used by logicians (somewhat redundantly),
from 1792 in OED; as uses of "vicious" and "circle" on their own
decline, the expression seems to have become a fixed phrase

now added:

"vicious circle/spiral" in general use, from 1839 in OED (surely
extended from the logicians' use of the fixed expression); several
cites from writing about economics (also from medicine)

"vicious cycle" not in OED, so far as i [or Bryan Garner] can tell
[OEDistas, take note!]

there is a pretty meaty Wikipedia entry for "virtuous and vicious
circle", entirely about macroeconomics and management theory, where
"circle" and "cycle" are treated as interchangeable

ginormous number of google webhits for "vicious cycle", in all sorts
of contexts, including as the title of a 2003 album by Lynyrd Skynyrd
[re-formed], the name of a game development company, and the name of
a bicycle shop -- but many just for "self-exacerbating processes", as
Brians puts it

and now we have many people (including several in our class) who
think, reasonably enough, that the correct variant is "vicious
cycle".  it's not the historical original, but it looks like it's so
frequent, even in technical contexts, that it should be treated as a
standard variant.  Garner's Dictionary of American Usage notes (p.
818) that the "circle" version is "about 40% more common... in modern
print sources", but doesn't condemn the "cycle" version, noting only
that the "circle" version "is the phrase with the stronger precedent
to support it" (meaning historical precedent)

still not known when the "cycle" version began appearing


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