Posted by Bruce Kahl on August 14, 2001
In Reply to: Round Robin posted by kate on August 14, 2001
: does anyone know the derivation of 'a round robin'? a friend asked and now it's driving me bananas. It is mentioned as a phrase on this site but there is no meaning attached...
From the Word Detective:
The phrase actually has nothing whatever to do with a bird, robin or any other kind. "Robin" in this phrase is a corruption of the French "ruban," meaning "ribbon".
In 17th and 18th century France you would sometimes petition the king or local leader for some changes and if he or she did not like the petition the monarch's usual reaction to a petition from his subjects was to seize the first two or three signers and have them beheaded. Not wishing to lose their heads, but bent nonetheless on petitioning for justice, clever peasants came up with the expedient of signing their names on the petition in a circle, like a ribbon. That way, no one's name came "first," and, assuming that there were hundreds of signatures on the petition, it was impractical for the King to punish all the signers. A similar method was adopted by disgruntled sailors in the 18th century British Royal Navy, another institution not known for welcoming criticism. Sailors often signed their names to a petition like the spokes of a wheel, so that no one of them could be considered the leader of a mutiny and hanged.
Today we use "round robin" to describe any event, most often a sporting event of some kind, where everyone takes a turn.