The Interesting Origins of the Phrase ‘Swings and Roundabouts’

The literary origin of the expression ‘swings and roundabouts’ in a forgotten poem

Where does the phrase ‘swings and roundabouts’ originate? It’s widely believed that it had its origins in a little-known poem by Irish writer Patrick Reginald Chalmers (1872-1942). Chalmers was a banker Swings and roundaboutsas well as a poet, and he also wrote biographies of several literary figures, including author of Peter Pan J. M. Barrie and The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame. (Curiously enough, we’ve delved into another phrase, the Wildean quip ‘I am not young enough to know everything‘, and traced it back to Barrie.)

But he’s also sometimes credited with popularising, or even inventing, the phrase ‘swings and roundabouts’, meaning ‘a situation in which different actions or options result in no eventual gain or loss.’ In other words, ‘it’s all much of a muchness’. Chalmers used this phrase – and the accompanying sentiment or meaning – in a poem titled ‘Roundabouts and Swings’, which was first published in Chalmers’ volume Green Days and Blue Days in 1912. The original poem is interesting not least because it cleverly employs existing expressions (round and round, up and down) to describe the pattern of financial profit and loss experienced by the travelling man. In doing so, and in using the symbols of the roundabouts and the swings to reinforce this sense of gain and loss, the poem arguably helped to bring the phrase to a wider audience.

The poem is given in full below.


It was early last September nigh to Framlin’am-on-Sea,
An’ ’twas Fair-day come to-morrow, an’ the time was after tea,
An’ I met a painted caravan adown a dusty lane,
A Pharaoh with his waggons comin’ jolt an’ creak an’ strain;
A cheery cove an’ sunburnt, bold o’ eye and wrinkled up,
An’ beside him on the splashboard sat a brindled tarrier pup,
An’ a lurcher wise as Solomon an’ lean as fiddle-strings
Was joggin’ in the dust along ‘is roundabouts and swings.

‘Goo’-day,’ said ‘e; ‘Goo’-day,’ said I; ‘an’ ‘ow d’you find things go,
An’ what’s the chance o’ millions when you runs a travellin’ show?’
‘I find,’ said ‘e, ‘things very much as ‘ow I’ve always found,
For mostly they goes up and down or else goes round and round.’
Said ‘e, ‘The job’s the very spit o’ what it always were,
It’s bread and bacon mostly when the dog don’t catch a ‘are;
But lookin’ at it broad, an’ while it ain’t no merchant king’s,
What’s lost upon the roundabouts we pulls up on the swings!’

‘Goo’ luck,’ said ‘e; ‘Goo’ luck,’ said I; ‘you’ve put it past a doubt;
An’ keep that lurcher on the road, the gamekeepers is out;’
‘E thumped upon the footboard an’ ‘e lumbered on again
To meet a gold-dust sunset down the owl-light in the lane;
An’ the moon she climbed the ‘azels, while a night-jar seemed to spin
That Pharaoh’s wisdom o’er again, ‘is sooth of lose-and-win;
For ‘up an’ down an’ round,’ said ‘e, ‘goes all appointed things,
An’ losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!’

But did the phrase ‘swings and roundabouts’ actually originate with Chalmers’ poem? It appears not. We thought as much, until a reader got in touch with us and drew our attention to a new piece of evidence: an instance of ‘swings and roundabouts’ which predates Chalmers by a whole six years. Credit for this new information goes to Ross Young, who told us about:

P.G. Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens, which was published in 1906. In Chapter 16, when the protagonist, Jerry Garnet, realises that he’s probably done his dash with the object of his affections and he should get back to writing his novel, he remarks philosophically: ‘A man must go through the fire before he write his masterpiece. We learn in suffering what we teach in song. What we lose on the swings, we make up on the roundabouts’. This pre-dates the poem by 6 years.

Thanks to Ross for this information. It appears, as he points out, that the phrase was already familiar to Wodehouse when he wrote Love Among the Chickens, so Chalmers shouldn’t get the credit for originating the phrase – though he did help to give it expression in poetic form.

We’ve unearthed literary origins of other phrases in these posts, on the origin of ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, the history of the phrase ‘Goody Two-Shoes’, and the origin of ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledee’.

Image: Roundabouts and Swings, by Glyn Baker, 2006; via Wikimedia Commons.

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