The definition of "circa" is generally regarded as "approximately" in relation to dates. However, how well can the use of "circa" also be extended to connect a current time? For example, "I go to bed circa midnight."

I understand that the word is Latin and substituting its use in English would be highfalutin. I'm just curious how well it works in relation to a time, and such a time around the current date that possibly recurs.

  • 1
    I haven't heard that usage since circa 1955.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 9 at 22:33
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    Wrt register, John Lawler has: 'So the decision is yours. Are you going to maintain an elevated scholarly tone throughout?' ... "I go to bed circa midnight, after doing the dishes and watching 'MASH'." Hmm. It seems unlikely that an everyday English example will sound acceptable. And I've found a mere 3 Google hits for "circa 12 midnight", 6 for "circa 2400 hours" (and these all the length of time rather than midnight), Admittedly, there appear to be a few hundred for "circa 9 o'clock" including "It opens circa 9 o'clock in the morning", but I'd only ever use it for year-dates (if then). Feb 10 at 11:58

2 Answers 2


The question refers to the use of a Latin word, circa, which is sometimes used in written English to mean ‘approximately’ before dates.

The question regards “how well” the extension of this “works” in relation to temporal expressions like midnight.

I find this a curious way of expressing an idea. If it “works well” it will be in use in the language. Usage is Language! Experience and a variety of searches (such as this Google Books ngram) indicate that it is not in use.

My explanation of this restricted use is that circa was introduced into general English writing in the specific context of dates for compactness, especially were many are referred to in a historical context. No such requirement exists for “midnight” and the like. Further, I would regard it unnatural to use circa in speech, even for dates — compare: “We moved here circa 1990” to “We moved here in about 1980”.

Circa (or its abbreviations ca or c.) is used in specialized scientific contexts with measurements for similar reasons, although again its use in verbal presentations is discouraged (by me at least — compare saying et al. in a lecture).

  • It's not flagged as foreigh in English dictionaries, so it's English too now. As English as 'acnestis'. Feb 10 at 12:03
  • @EdwinAshworth — Quite. I do not use the word "foreigh" — or even "foreign" — but the question of when a loan word becomes part of a language can only be answered subjectively (or by arbitrary objective criteria). My point is that this particular word (which I use myself in scientific writing) is rarely used in the spoken (as opposed to the written) language because of its function. And whatever the people who write dictionaries decide (no Académie anglaise) the fact that some writers italicize it suggests that they regard it as foreign.
    – David
    Feb 10 at 12:39
  • One can rely more on stats collected by compilers. Collins has also italicised for the US definition, but not for the UK definition ... 'a Latin word, circa' is selective. Feb 10 at 15:02

It's understandable, but extremely rare.

For example, in a comment on Commentary Magazine:

The bubble that should have burst no later than at the end of the non–Recovery Summer of 2010 finally did so last night, 3 October 2012, circa 10 PM EDT.

And another example on Scallywag and Vagabond with what seems like poor wording to me:

According to employees the shooting was unprovoked and had occurred circa at 4.30 am after the gunman stormed off the premises an hour earlier.

I used COCA to look for examples with AM or PM and these were the only hits I got, two hits out of over a billion words.

You can also rarely find circa used with other units, as in this comment on MarkMaynard.com:

I’m only asking for English at the level of a 12-year-old kid with circa 100 I.Q.

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