The expression three-ring circus has a literal meaning and also a figurative meaning, which is an idiom. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. An idiom can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative meaning of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the definition of the phrase three-ring circus, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.
The literal meaning of the term three-ring circus is a circus show that consists of acts performing in three rings, simultaneously. Three-ring circus is also an idiom that means a situation that involves a lot of chaos, with a lot of frenetic activity that is difficult to process. The idiom three-ring circus may describe a situation that is stressful and out of control, or it may be used to describe a situation that is wild and fun. The term is most often used as a metaphor, which is a word or phrase in which one thing is referred to as another, different thing. A metaphor is a comparison or a symbol that is used to describe imagery. The term three-ring circus comes from the entertainment venue of the circus. The circus is a show that has been popular since 1770, when Englishman Philip Astley presented an equestrian show galloping in a ring, rather than a straight line. He added novelty acts such as acrobats, jugglers and a clown. The first circuses were presented in temporary buildings. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the traveling circus was established by American entrepreneurs, who toured the country in wagons and then on trains, pitching a tent or a big top every few days. A circus parade through a small town, replete with clowns and circus elephants was always sure to draw a crowd. Hachaliah Bailey was the first promoter to bring a pachyderm or elephant to America. Eventually, a menagerie of exotic animals such as bears, zebras, tigers, lions, camels and their trainers were entertaining circus-goers. The ringmaster would famously exhort, “Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages, welcome!” Other circus acts included the flying trapeze and other daring aerial performers on the high wire, juggling, the human cannonball, clowns, acrobatic exhibitions and more. Perhaps the best-known circus showman was P.T. Barnum, who is credited with pioneering the use of the three-ring circus format in the late 1800s. The term three-ring circus to mean an out-of-control or chaotic situation first came into use at the turn of the twentieth century. Circuses across the world have undergone great changes in the last few decades. The greatest show on earth, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus, owned by Feld Entertainment, closed in 2017. Generations enjoyed the thrills of spectacular acts in the arena under the big top, but rising costs and concern for inhumane treatment of the trained animals, some of which are now endangered, made the circus seem less entertaining. Still, circuses are not entirely extinct. Some smaller circuses still showcase performers with an exhibition of death-defying acts such as the Big Apple Circus based out of New York. Note that the words three-ring should be hyphenated.
But it may become a three-ring circus with the addition of independent candidate Richard Nelson “Oz” Griebel of Hartford. (The Greenwich Daily Voice)
You can’t ever say America doesn’t love a good sex scandal, and Judge Kavanagh’s confirmation hearings have turned into a genuine three-ring circus now that no less than three women have come forward accusing the nominee of high school and college era sexual improprieties. (The Wichita Eagle)
He’s not exactly blameless in the current three-ring circus that has developed over the pile of silage he stored at property he bought for other, more plutocratic reasons on the west end of town. (The Marion County Record)