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The meaning and origin of the expression: Round Robin

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Round Robin

Meaning

A tournament in which each contestant plays each of the others.

Origin

In order to identify the derivation of 'Round Robin', we need first to be clear about what the term means. It is now used to refer to things that operate in a rotational manner, like tournaments where each player plays every other, circular letters etc. Long before those contemporary meanings were known of, the term Round Robin had been used to refer to a variety of things. The earliest use was as a disparaging nickname, along the lines of 'sly dog' or 'dark horse'. This dates back to the 16th century and was cited in a work by Miles Coverdale, in 1546:

Certayne fonde talkers... applye to this mooste holye sacramente, names of despitte and reproche, as to call it Jake in the boxe, and round roben, and suche other not onely fond but also blasphemouse names. [fond then meant confounded, or foolish]

Other uses were:

- A reference to Roundheads, that is, the supporters of Parliament during the English Civil War, as in Rump, 1662, which was a collection of scurrilous poems and songs.

- The name of a high-spirited game; for example, in The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown, 1707 - "The noble and ancient recreation of Robin-Robin, Hey-Jnks, [sic] and Whipping the Snake."

Round Robin- The name of virtually anything that was round in shape. For instance, Angler fish, pancakes and even, in An Epistle to Lieutenant Hamilton, a Scottish dialect poem by Alan Ramsey, 1721, the chubby little garden visitor, the Robin:

Now, now I hope we'll ding the Dutch,
As fine as a round Robin,
Gin greediness to grow soon rich
Invites not to stock-jobbing

The variety of contexts in which the term has been used seems to argue against it being derived from the roundness of robins. It is more likely that 'Robin' was attached to 'round' just as a pleasant-sounding alliteration.

The currently used ' rotational' meaning is independent of all of the earlier uses. This began in the 18th century as the name of a form of petition, in which the complainants signed their names in a circle, so as to disguise who had signed first. This was especially favoured by sailors - not surprisingly, as mutiny was then a hanging offence. The term is recorded in the January 1730 edition of The Weekly Journal:

"A Round Robin is a Name given by Seamen, to an Instrument on which they sign their Names round a Circle, to prevent the Ring-leader being discover'd by it, if found."

It may be that this derives from the French 'rond rouban', which was a similar form of petition, in which the names were written on a circle of ribbon. That's an attractive and plausible notion, but I can't find any actual documentary evidence to substantiate it. Another idea, again attractive at first sight, is that the term 'ringleader' derives from the person who was first to sign the circle of names on a round robin. That's not likely, as the first use of ringleader is from well before 1730.

The most frequent use of 'Round Robin' now is as the name of tournaments with rounds where everyone plays everyone else. This originated in the USA at the end of the 19th century. The earliest citation I have of that is from the Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin, issued in New York in 1895:

"The so-called round-robin tournament, where each man plays every other, furnishes the best possible test of tennis skill."