Why is a tournament where each team plays the other in turn called a round robin? The answer involves ribbons, religious refugees, and ringleaders.
What Does Red Robin Mean?
Round robin very generally means something that operates in a rotational manner. It is specifically used for tournaments (in sports or games) where each team or player plays every other, a circulating letter where each subsequent person adds information to the document, or any other situation that involves the participation of each person in a group in turn.
Other Meanings of Red Robin
But before round robin referred to a rotational arrangement, it was a term of disparagement, dating back to the sixteenth century. In 1546, Miles Coverdale wrote,
Certayne fonde [foolish] 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.
Round robin also had a variety of other meanings, including supporters of the English Parliament during the country’s civil war, some type of recreational game, and a playful alliterative term for anything round in shape. None of these necessarily had any relation to the robin as a bird.
Origins of Red Robin
Merriam-Webster lists the first known usage of round robin given its current meaning in 1698. It was first used in the British Royal Navy in reference to a petition of grievances or letter of protest on which the participants signed their names in a circle, like the spokes on a wheel, so that the recipient would not know who signed first. It was regarded as primarily a nautical term, but by the 1730s, even landlubbers—primarily government officials—sent around petitions round-robin style to protect the ringleader from discovery.
Fake Etymology, Real History
Some sources claim that the term comes from the French ruban rond (“round ribbon”), which was likewise a petition where names were written on a circle of ribbon. This is plausible; however, there is no documentary evidence to support this. It’s also been asserted that ringleader stems from the leader of a round robin petition where people signed their names in a ring, but again, there is little concrete evidence for this etymology.
However, history does indicate a French origin story. The round robin petition may have had its beginnings in France in 1621 with a petition signed by 56 Huguenot refugees. The Huguenots were Protestants who suffered severe persecution from the Catholic majority in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These 56 signatories and their families had fled from France to Leiden in Holland. They were now petitioning to settle in the British colony of Virginia. The Walloon Jesse de Forest presented the round-robin petition to the British Ambassador Sir Dudley Carlton, but his request was only granted with such strict parameters that he decided against it. Later, 32 families sailed from Holland to the area known as New Netherland—helping form the beginnings of what would become New York.
The meaning of round robin as applied to a tournament first appeared in the United States in the early 1800s. Though no secrecy or petitions of grievance are involved, the term round robin has expanded to capture the idea of any kind of rotational procedure.
Butterfield, Jeremy. “Round Robins and Folk Etymology.” Jeremy Butterfield Editorial. https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com/2020/06/10/round-robins-and-folk-etymology/.
Grammarist. “Round Robin.” https://grammarist.com/usage/round-robin/.
Merriam-Webster online dictionary. “Round robin.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/round-robin.
The Phrase Finder. “The Meaning and Origin of the Expression: Round Robin.” https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/round-robin.html.