Q&A: Vicious cycle or circle?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we find ourselves cycling in a vicious circle…

Q: Hi AWC, I was having an argument with a friend about which is correct – I thought it was “vicious cycle” but she thought “vicious circle”? What's the go with this?

A: Well, they're actually fairly interchangeable. Typically defining a situation where solving a problem will create a new problem.

Q: I had a vicious cycle once. Got terrible chaffing from it and the gears were always getting stuck. Brakes didn't work either.

A: Haha, okay well that's a different kind altogether. But your friend may get a bonus point because “vicious CIRCLE” was the original term.

Q: No way!

A: Yes way. Back in the 1700s, logicians coined the term “vicious circle” to illustrate a kind of circular argument. They defined it as “A depends on B, B depends on C and C depends on A.”

Q: Why so vicious? Punk was still 200 years off.

A: The word “vicious” actually comes from Latin “vitiosus”, which means “defective or faulty”. So the logic wasn't nasty, just broken.

Q: So how did “vicious circle” get a life outside of logic boffins?

A: Through the 18th and 19th centuries, it picked up steam by describing medical scenarios (usually ones that ended in death) and eventually to describe any process where one event feeds off another but is trapped in a loop and eventually returns to its starting point, with no benefit gained.

Q: I'm starting to get dizzy. It's like that time my mum decided to tell me about the birds and the bees in a roundabout way. We were on that roundabout for hours – you should have seen the traffic that backed up.

A: Haha, okay. Another good modern example was what happened in the 2000s – the Global Financial Crisis they say was caused by an escalating vicious circle/cycle of subprime loans.

Q: You lost me with your optimus prime loans, sorry. And anyway, wasn't that termed a “vicious spiral”?

A: Well, that's a US variation – the advantage of using “spiral” may be that it's akin to water going down a drain.

Q: Like all that invested money going down the drain?

A: Exactly. Where a vicious circle would come back to the start with things no different, a vicious spiral would return with things much worse.

Q: What a cheery discussion we're having today!

A: Well on that note, in the squeaky clean 1950s the term “virtuous circle” emerged to mean the opposite of what we've been discussing. So, effectively a situation where positive things feed off each other to create more beneficial effects. An example may be the positive impact on a suburb sparked by the renovation of an old building.

Q: Okay, so to recap, “circle” was the original term, but “cycle” is used fairly interchangeably.

A: Yes that's right. Sometimes however using “cycle” simply makes more sense, if the example is more cyclical in nature. For example, the issue of children with an alcoholic parent growing up to do the same thing themselves. This is an area we often refer to as “breaking the cycle” so saying that it's a “vicious cycle” would fit better.

Q: Okay, good to know. But right now, I have to go.

A: Where to?

Q: I'm getting a more comfy seat put onto my latest vicious cycle. And maybe a flag.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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