Modern Idioms (and where they come from)



Swings and roundabouts: or, how to make your peace with luck!

Posted on June 22, 2021 at 5:25 AM

Swings and roundabouts” is a particularly English expression, used to denote the idea that good and bad things even out over time. The phrase is one that seems to date from the start of the 20th Century, and is sometimes ascribed to a poem published in 1912 entitled Roundabouts and Swings by Patrick Reginald Chalmers, about the fluctuating fortunes of a travelling salesman. Website Interesting Literature cites the poem, but also a use 6 years previously, in the 1906 P.G. Wodehouse novel Love Among the Chickens.(1) Here, one character, musing on the ups and downs of life, says, “What we lose on the swings, we make up on the roundabouts”, neatly summing up the modern meaning of the phrase. Some sources go even further back, citing use of swings and roundabouts in a British Parliamentary Debate from 1895, where it was apparently used as an established saying amongst costermongers (or street salesmen).(2)

“Swings and roundabouts” is now routinely listed in dictionaries, usually stressing the Britishness of the phrase. It may also be considered amongst the very many clichés that exist in sport, and particularly football, where the idea that most things (unfair decisions, bad luck, runs of poor form) tend to even out in the long run (over the course of a match, season, or career, depending on the point being made). Some sports have their own specific references to the luck (or lack thereof), such as snooker (“the run of the balls”) or the more ubiquitous “rub of the green”, perhaps first used in relation to bowls. The Phrase Finder website suggests that ”rub”, with a meaning of “hindrance”, was in common usage in the 16th Century, even if the first use of the whole phrase didn’t appear until 1812 (and then in the context of the rules of golf).(3) Accepting the basic premise – that luck will always play a part and we just have to roll with it – is one of the keys to success, and not just in sport!(4)








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