The word cycle itself is simple enough when used to mean something that returns to its beginning, something that loops. But how did it also gain the meaning of a literary cycle, defined as a collection of stories with the same set of characters? There doesn't seem to be any obvious link between the two meanings, and nothing I can find gives an etymology of the latter meaning in particular.

  • 1
    Because the authors are pedaling something.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 17 '18 at 0:43
  • @HotLicks: Perhaps you mean "peddling"?
    – Robusto
    Sep 17 '18 at 1:01
  • @Robusto - No, you pedal a cycle.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 17 '18 at 1:44
  • @HotLicks: Ah, duh! (Not bad.)
    – Robusto
    Sep 17 '18 at 2:54

The Oxford English Dictionary has the following definition for "cycle":

A series of poems or prose romances, collected round or relating to a central event or epoch of mythic history and forming a continuous narrative; as the Arthurian cycle. Also transf.
Originally used in the Epic cycle [Greek ὁ (ἐπικὸς) κύκλος], the series of epic poems written by later poets (Cyclic poets) to complete Homer, and presenting (with the Iliad and Odyssey) a continuous history of the Trojan war and of all the heroes engaged in it.

I found some more information about this in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica:

The expression “epic cycle” in the sense of a poetical collection does not occur before the Christian era; the word κύκλος (“cycle,” “circle”) is used of a special kind of short poem and also of a prose abstract of mythological history; the adjective has the general sense of “hackneyed,” “conventional,” and is applied contemptuously (by Callimachus and Horace) to a particular Alexandrian school of poetry.

Beyond that, one source says that "[t]heir reason for using the term 'cyclic' (if in fact they did) remains obscure", so I'm not sure there is a definite answer, ultimately.

This sense of the word in English dates at least as far back as 1835:

They..formed the basis or nucleus of the epic cycle.
A History of Greece, Volume 1

The adjective form dates back to a1822:

They are the episodes of that cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of men.
Prose works

  • Thanks, I didn't know that meaning (κύκλος as in circle of friends, magic circle) went back that far. It always seems to be the other meaning (κύκλος = wheel, life-cycle, yearly cycle) that dominates.
    – Hugh
    Sep 17 '18 at 2:15
  • I am aware of the actual meaning of the term; what I don't get is how the word "cycle" came to mean this. That is, why specifically did the word "cycle" (or ᴋύᴋλος) come to be applied in this way, what is the etymology of it?
    – Hearth
    Sep 17 '18 at 4:33
  • There's also the 'song cycle' in classical music (a set of songs meant to be performed together). As Laurel says, it appears we don't know the exact etymology. Sep 17 '18 at 8:23

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