A round robin is a type of sports tournament where all the players play one another in succession. This sense comes from an older, nautical jargon term referring to a document signed by mutineers. In a round robin document, the mutineers would sign their names in a circle, so the authorities could not identify the first to sign, who presumably would be the ring leaders. (Despite the temptation to connect round robin and ringleader, the two words are etymologically unconnected.) Some sources suggest that this usage of round robin comes from the French rond ruban, or round ribbon, that was tied around these petitions--but little evidence exists to support this guess. From the Weekly Journal of 3 January 1730:
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.
The sports usage seems to be taken from this naval one. No players are ranked in the tournament, they all play as equals. From the 3 January 1895 Official Lawn Tennis Bulletin:
The so-called round-robin tournament, where each man plays every other, furnishes the best possible test of tennis skill.
There is an older and obsolete sense of round robin that is apparently unrelated to these two. It is a 16th century derogatory slang term for the communion host. From the preface to Miles Coverdale’s 1546 translation of Calvin’s A Treatise on the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ:
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.1
The sports usage has given rise to a number of slang variations meaning something done by a succession of people. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang records it as a verb in use from the 1960s denoting an orgy where the participants have sex with one another in succession.2 And Elliot Weinstein’s 1975 Fillostrated Fan Dictionary, glosses it as:
Round robin: Story started by one writer, continued and completed by other writers.
And there is this from the television show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, from the episode Innocence which aired on 20 January 1998 referring to telephone calls to one’s parents to mislead them about a teen’s whereabouts:
Better do round robin...It’s where everybody calls everybody else’s mom and tells them they’re staying at everybody’s house.3
I’m not sure if this sense is in actual use “in the wild” among teens, or if was invented by the show’s writers.
2Jonathan Green, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, 2nd Edition. (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), 1209.
3Michael Adams, Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 207.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton