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Robins and Ribbons

Round Robin was used constantly during the recent World Cup cricket series to describe the preliminary matches when each team played the other seven in the tournament.

The phrase conjures visions of a plump and plumaged redbreast from a Christmas card, perched on a snowdrift with a sprig of holly in its beak.

How on earth can this British winter avian be connected with the epitome of summer sports in the Antipodes?

Quite simply, he has no connection at all. And the derivation of “round robin” is as remote from sport as the farcical rain rules which marred the cricket contest.

A round robin is in fact a French “roban rond” or round ribbon, and like so many English words and phrases it owes its origins to the seas and ships.

When sailors of the press-gang days summoned the courage to protest against the harsh and brutal treatment which was part and parcel of their existence, they would do so in the form of a written petition to the captain.

The man whose name appeared first on the petition stood an excellent change of being flogged for impertinence in daring to challenge draconian authority of the ship’s master.

It was safer to arrange for all the names to appear in a circle so that none could immediately be identified as the ring-leader. The names were therefore written on a round ribbon, which through time and usage became round robin.

Many other common expressions also have an unexpected maritime history, such as spick and span. Spick is another form of spike, and span meant chip.

The words were used to describe a brand new ship which would presumably still sport shiny metal nail heads and fresh wood chips on its decks. Both the German and Dutch languages have similar and older expressions.

The old salts have also given us “Sweet FA” which was first applied to tinned meat and later to any item of little or no value. The expression derives from Francis Adams who was brutally murdered and her body dismembered in 1867.

It was round about the same time that the Royal Navy introduced tinned mutton to its bill of fare, and the coincidence was clearly too great for the ratings to ignore.

A monkey was a kind of naval gun trolley used to hold cannon balls. The monkeys were often made from metals other than the iron of the ammunition. In cold weather the different materials would contract at different rates, so that the pile of cannon balls on the monkey would be destabilized and roll over the decks.

Thus, in Durban’s recent heat wave, many would have welcomed the kind of weather that would “freeze the balls off a brass monkey,” unaware that the phrase has nothing to do with simian anatomy.

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