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Q From Todd Laufenberg: Who is the Robin referred to in the term round robin? Is it a person, or does it refer to the bird?

A The short answer is that we don’t know for sure where it comes from, though we’re pretty sure that it has nothing to do with the bird, nor with any person named Robin. The phrase had a short-lived existence in the middle of the sixteenth century as a derogatory — some said blasphemous — slang term for the Christian communion host and, a little later, as an ill-defined term for a person. It came back into the language at the beginning of the eighteenth century as a sailor’s term for a letter of complaint on which the names of those signing were written in a circle so that no one of them could be identified as the ringleader. Some books say that this comes from a French expression rond rouban, for an earlier version of the same idea in which names were written on an endless ribbon attached to the document. There seems to be little or no actual evidence for this assertion, and the French phrase would have been rouban rond anyway, which rather spoils the story (though there might be a link between rouban and robin, with the word round being added later for alliteration). It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that it was applied to tournaments in which every contestant plays every other at least once.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Feb. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-rou1.htm
Last modified: 27 February 1999.