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The meaning and origin of the expression: Run rings around

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Run rings around

Meaning

To easily outrun or outclass and opponent.

Origin

Run rings around'Running rings around' originated as an English hunting term. It was used by fox-hunters but more often by those indulging in hare-coursing, which is now banned in the UK. The circling runs made by the hare in its attempts to outrun the chasing greyhounds were called rings. The first person to refer in print to rings with that meaning was the Member of Parliament for Ipswich, William Churchill, in 1717:

" Hunt circling Hares, or wily Foxes chase, Their mazy Rings, and fly Meanders trace."

'Running rings' came a little later. The first example that I can find of the expression in print is in the hunting text Stable Talk and Table Talk, Charles Brindley, 1846:

"Was it a bad scenting country, or were foxes scarce?" He said, "Neither: but the foxes were apt to run rings."

'Running rings around' is found later again, in the 1875 Coursing Calendar:

Ace-of-Trumps was immensely her superior, making rings round her, and winning all one way.

The figurative use of the phrase, which refers to people being outwitted or outclassed rather than outrun, began being used in the late 19th century. Several of these early uses come from Australia and New Zealand; for example, this piece from the New Zealand newspaper The Waikato Times, November 1880:

Failing Mr Clark's acceptance of the invitation to become a candidate [for election as Mayor], there are several other well-known citizens who could "run rings" around Mr Larkins.

The alternative form of the expression is 'run circles around', which came into being later again, around the turn of the 10th century. This form is entirely disassociated from the source hunting context and was coined in the USA and is still used there, whereas most other English-speaking countries prefer the original ;run rings' version. An example of it is found in the New York newspaper The Syracuse Standard, July 1897:

The speedy Herreshoff flyer... could run circles around any of the craft running between Clayton and the Bay.