“Swings and Roundabouts”

Over on the American Dialect Society listserv, Wilson Gray posted that he had come across an unfamiliar expression at the website 9to5mac.com:

While you can argue that it’s more convenient to simply put your phone down on a pad than to have to plug in a cable, that’s swings and roundabouts: a cable lets me continue to use my phone while I’m charging it. Pick it up from a pad, however, and it’s no longer charging.

“A Briticism?” wondered Wilson.

Well, yes (or, as this blog likes to spell it, a Britishism). The Oxford online dictionary identifies “swings and roundabouts” as such and gives this definition: “A situation in which different actions or options result in no eventual gain or loss.” The idea is that in carnivals, where the proprietor might be losing money on one ride, such as the swings, he is likely to be doing well on another, such as the roundabout. (That doesn’t refer to a traffic circle but to what Americans would call a merry-go-round.) The equivalent American expression, I would say, is “Six of one, half-dozen of the other.” [A comment, below, led me to realize that “six of one…” has been equally popular on both sides of the pond.] “It all comes out in the wash,” has a similar message.

There is an interesting discussion of the origin of “swings and roundabouts” at a website appropriately called Interesting Literature. The first use that’s given there is in a 1906 P.G. Wodehouse novel, Love Among the Chickens:

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’.

The context suggests that even then it was a familiar expression. Six years later, in 1912, it provided the title and theme to a poem by Patrick Chalmers, “Roundabouts and Swings.”

Since then it’s appeared almost exclusively in British sources. Either version (“swings and roundabouts” and “roundabouts and swings”) has been used in the New York Times a little more than a half-dozen times, and only twice by Americans. The first was book editor Jeremiah Kaplan, clearly an Anglophile, who was quoted in 1985, ”Publishing has always been swings and roundabouts, so publishers who diversify have a much better chance of succeeding.”  The second was fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, who didn’t seem to understand its meaning, using it to describe the rapidly changing looks that David Bowie embodied over the years.

As for the 9t05mac.com post, the author is Ben Lovejoy, whose bio describes him as “a British technology writer.” It goes on: “He speaks fluent English but only broken American, so please forgive any Anglicised spelling in his posts.”

Update: Robin Hamilton informs by e-mail me that he found both an earlier use of the phrase quoted by Wodehouse, and its origin, in a saying of costermongers, or costers. The use was in a Parliamentary debate in 1895:

“As the coster said : ‘What we gain on the swings we lose on the roundabouts.’”

 

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16 responses to ““Swings and Roundabouts”

  1. My knowledge of the phrase “Six of one, half-dozen of another” comes solely from the British television series, “The Prisoner,” which aired in 1968.

  2. English comedian Frank Skinner related a story in his autobiography ‘On The Road’. He told a joke in Canada which involved the use of the expression ‘swings and roundabouts’ in the sense of good and bad things balancing out over time, being confused with its literal meaning of big toys in a playground. The audience were silent at the punch line and one of them later told him that the phrase is unknown in Canada.
    My mum used to say ‘It’s as broad as it’s long’ and I was rebuked as a child when I used ‘same difference’. I have also heard ‘It’s a six and two threes’. They are similar in meaning but not as widely used in Britain – I think – as ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other’ but that is such a long-winded mouthful, compared to ‘swings and roundabouts’.

  3. I don’t think of this expression as referring to a carnival’s attractions but rather to a playground. THe roundabout is a piece of equipment that small children hold on to as they run around it until it gets sufficient speed that they can jump on and get a fast, dizzying ride for a few minutes.

  4. If you travel throughout the UK, you will find a few variants of “six of one, half a dozen of the other” (which is the phrase I would use. I am from London).

    In the Midlands (Shakespeare country) I have heard “It’s six and two threes” …

  5. Ben’s piece implies that a roundabout is called a merry-go-round in the US. In Britain, the two are distinctly different.
    I would call this a roundabout – http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-children-playing-on-playground-roundabout-591184.html
    To me, a merry-go-round is a big fairground carousel with bright lights, horses that go up and down and a surly man wearing a money apron and a sneer.
    So is that little turntable thing in the playground a merry-go-round?

    Better not start see-saw versus teeter-totter!

    • In a word, yes. In the U.S., “merry-go-round” refers both to the big carousel thing and the device in the photograph. It would be helpful if we called that “roundabout,” but we don’t.

  6. How interesting. “Swings and roundabouts” is the familiar expression. I’ve never heard it put as “roundabouts and swings”. Roundabouts in fairs or carnivals pre-date those little ones in playgrounds.

  7. The fact that on both swings and roundabouts one makes no lasting forward progress serves to reinforce the metaphor.

  8. Peter from Oz

    Here in Oz, swings and roundabouts has a different meaning to ‘same diff’ or “six of one half a dozen of the other’ The latter two refer to two things having the same result or being basically no different from each other.

    Swings and roundabouts refers to actually or hypothetically doing two things and ending up where you began. That’s because it is really a contraction of the saying what you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts. Thus typically you would ask someone whether following certain course of action would lead to a good result. The response well it’s swings and roundabouts means that it will be partially good and partially bad, leading to a neutral result.

    • +Peter from Oz
      That’s pretty much what I’ve always taken it to mean in the UK.. If you have a choice of actions, the positives and negatives cancel each other out so that neither action has an overall advantage.

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