What Is a Round Robin? – Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Round robin doesn’t refer to a well-fed Turdus migratorius, otherwise known as the American Robin, searching for breakfast on your front lawn. Although, you might be prompted to point out the cuteness of the rounded little red-breasted bird.

Round robin is actually a term used to describe the means to include everyone in a group in some sort of event. However, the round-robin style of participation isn’t the original name. It is an altered name that stems from a scam in 16th-century England or a French petition of protest (depends on who you ask). So how did it become a way to popularly describe a means to compete against everyone in an event fairly?

Let’s take a closer look at this fun and well-used term that provides inclusivity for everyone involved!

What Does Round Robin Mean?

httpsgrammarist.comusageround robin

A round robin is a noun used to describe a sequence or series that involves the participation of everyone in a group. The term is hyphenated as in round-robin when used as an adjective before a noun.

The term round robin is currently most often used to refer to a tournament in which every participant has the opportunity to play every other participant in the tournament.

For example:

  • The round-robin style questioning will allow each contestant to compete against one another as a way to further practice their skills.
  • Round robins are a great way to provide fair play in a tournament, but they take a really long time.
  • The round-robin tournament takes place the last week of July and will include teams from across the state. 

However, a round robin may also refer to a letter or document sent sequentially to a specific group of people. Each person adds information to the document in this type of round robin. If it is a perpetual round robin, each participant removes his old information when the document returns to him and adds new information before sending the document to the next person in sequence.

For example:

  • Keep an eye out for the petition as it is moving through the office round-robin style and requires everyone’s testimony and signature.
  • The letter is a round-robin and requires you to place your address at the top and move everyone below down one line before passing on.

Origins of Round Robin

Round Robin Ngram
Round Robin Usage Trend.

There are some arguments about the origin of the term round robin. Our nGram doesn’t show it in use until the mid-1700s – likely as a form of document signing stemming from maritime grievances. But, research highlights that various forms were used before this in England and France.

The earliest claims originate in 16th-century England to describe a synonym for “Jack-in-the-Box,” or street swindler who would steal boxes of goods and replace them with empty boxes (yes, the toy of the same name came from this practice). Robin was a common name (as was Jack), and the “round-robin attempts of the perpetrator to move boxes to avoid immediate detection is said to be where this synonym stems from.

In fact, this is the first known reference in publication. Miles Coverdale wrote 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.

Another feasible claim comes from 17th-century France. At this time, government officials signed petitions on ribbons that were then affixed to a document in a circular fashion. This practice was known as “ruban rond” or “round ribbon” when translated into English. Ruban sounds much like “robin” and, over time, likely was adapted as such. This practice is what likely led to the documentation of English sailors claiming grievances in a similar manner.

In the mid-1700s, a round robin referred to a petition or letter of protest put forth by English sailors to the Captain. In this scenario, the sailors who signed the letter applied their signatures one after another in the shape of a circle – so the Captain would not know who signed the petition first. This was likely the most popular use of the modern spelling of round robin, hence the nGram records.

Today, the modern definition for round robin is most popularly used to mean a certain type of tournament that was first used in the United States in the late 1800s.

Let’s Review

Round robin refers to a style of a tournament that allows each contestant or team to play against one another. It occasionally is also used as a way to pass a document from person to person sequentially.

Its long and illustrious history and multiple origins have likely influenced the multiple uses we see today.