You know the drill. Come the season-to-be-jolly- (Fa, la, la … repeat ad nauseam) you are sure to receive a missive – or these days most likely an email – telling you what those doting parents you never actually meet or speak to and their brood have been up to – sorry, I mean “achieved”. Because there will be no failures and no disasters mentioned: this is an all-Alpha, achievement-focussed family.
Arabella has set up her own business, which has already won several industry awards and is growing exponentially. Rollo is in his final year at Oxbridge and, when not training as a rugby blue, has directed the college play, learnt a third foreign language and raised several thousand pounds to help local disadvantaged BAME kids. Holidays have, of course, been spent in this country this year because climate change. And in any case the country “hideaway” (in reality a six-bedroomed former rectory left by an aunt) needed some updating.
All this angst-inducing crowing will be included in what is colloquially known as a round-robin. Does it have anything to do with our feathered friends?
Anything to do with robins?
No. But an interesting story surrounds the phrase all the same. Well, in fact, two stories: the real one about the word’s quirky development over time, and the fake news, folk etymology one. Well, in fact, three. Because there’s also the story of the man who failed to establish New Amsterdam.
Let’s start with the fake history.
Round robin meaning the sort of circular letter we all love to hate is first recorded in an isolated 1871 instance, according to the OED. The phrase didn’t really get going until much later, though, the next quotation being from nearly a century later:
Round-robin letters are often useful … In this case a general letter is written stating all of the news and copies of it are sent to various members of the family, and friends.
Hartford (Connecticut) Courant 3 Sept. (Mag. section) 9/1, 1961
Folk etymology is often picturesque
And if it can give itself the allure of a foreign language, it will, as I will describe in another post on folk etymology.
Wikipedia states that round robin in this sense is an adaptation of the French phrase ruban rond, which means “round ribbon” (literally, “ribbon round”). That article cites two sources for this canard: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Robert Hendrickson’s Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1987, 1998), the latter cited on the Phrase Finder website.
Brewer says categorically: “The device is French, and the term seems to be a corruption of rond (round) and ruban (ribbon) originally used by sailors.”
That it was originally used by sailors is the only fact here. As Brewer was first published in 1870, the French origins myth must go back to before then, but who knows how far.
The French story seems implausible on several grounds: round robin as a phrase to denote a variety of circular things, from communion wafers to ruffs, dates back to the sixteenth century; it is hard to see phonetically how ruban, no matter how Englishly you pronounce it, could be assimilated to ribbon; the order of words is arsy-versy from French to English.
The (Christmas) “circular letter” meaning, now a familiar part of English, is a development of an earlier meaning defined lengthily by the OED as “A document (esp. one embodying a complaint, remonstrance, or request) having the names of the signatories arranged in a circle so as to disguise the order in which they have signed.”
Rum, sodomy and the lash
It first appears with that meaning in a naval context of 1698:
Some of them drew up a paper commonly called a Round Robin, and signed the same whereby they intimated that if the Captaine would not give them leave to goe a shore, they would take leave.
C. Young in High Court of Admiralty Exam. & Answers (P.R.O.: HCA 13/81) f. 679v
Subsequent mentions (the second from the previous version of the OED) make it clear why sailors would choose this form, namely, to avoid fingering their ringleader or to show that they were all equally involved:
The underwritten Petition [was] drawn up and signed by the whole Company in the Manner of what they call a Round Robin, that is, the Names were writ in a Circle, to avoid all Appearance of Pre-eminence.
‘C. Johnson’ Gen. Hist. Pyrates (ed. 2) xii. 332, 1724
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.
Weekly Journal. 3 Jan. 3/4, 1730
The Sailors on board the Fleet, signed, what is called by them, a round Robin, that is, a Paper containing…their Names subscribed in a Circle, that it might not be discerned who signed first.
CampbellLives Admirals(1748) II. 64, 1742
On Wikipedia the ruban rond legend comes complete with an illustration of a 1621 “round robin”, misleadingly phrased to suggest that round robin was the title given it at the time.
On that illustration, however, hangs a more interesting true story than the myth of French origins. The document has in its centre a request in French to allow the 56 signatories named in the “spokes” of the wheel and their families, totalling 227 souls, to settle in the British colony of Virginia. Those families were Huguenot refugees who had fled to Leiden.
Their range of occupations was such that, like the Pilgrim Fathers, they would have constituted a whole society in miniature – albeit a somewhat lopsided one – in their new home: among others, thirteen labourers to do the hard graft; a gardener, a tiller and two vine-dressers to make their land fruitful; three drapers, four dyers, four weavers, a hatter and a cobbler to keep them clothed; a locksmith and a carpenter to house them; two brewers and a musician for their leisure hours; an apothecary to keep them healthy; and a theology student to herd them zealously along the path of righteousness.
Their leader was the Walloon Jesse de Forest and it was he who presented the document to the British Ambassador to the Netherlands Sir Dudley Carlton in July of 1621. As Carlton wrote from the Hague:
Here hath been with me of late a certain Walloon, an inhabitant of Leyden, in the name of divers families, men of all trades and occupations, who desire to go into Virginia and there to live in the same condition as others of His Majesty’s [sc. King James VI and I of Scotland and England] subjects…
De Forest’s request was granted with such strict provisions that he decided not to throw in his lot with British colonisation. He then appealed to the States of Holland and West Friesland. He became one of the founders of the Dutch West India Company, Geoctrooieerde Westindische Compagnie. At its behest, in 1623 De Forest led an expedition to what is probably now Guiana, where he died. The following year, thirty-two families of colonists sailed from Holland to settle in the Dutch area around the Hudson river known as “New Netherland”. Whether any settled in Manhattan is unclear.
What is clear, however, is that in the legal documents of New Amsterdam a decade and more later, several of the family names that figured in that original round robin reappear among the founders of the new settlement. In a sense, then, de Forest can be credited with a hand in the very beginnings of today’s New York.
Space prevents me expatiating on round robin’s 17 other meanings besides “circular letter”, except to cite it as an example of how even the most humdrum- and innocuous-seeming words can accrete a boggling variety of meanings.
Sources: OED; Froendt, Antonia H. (1924) The Huguenot-Walloon Tercentary. New York: The Huguenot-Walloon New Netherland commission.