What you lose on the swings…


The other night Craig Ferguson said “what you lose on the swings you win on the roundabout” or words to that effect. It went right over the heads of his studio audience, and Craig offered a partial explanation: it means that things work out, what goes up must come down, a situation has equal pluses and minuses, there are advantages and disadvantages, and, more recently, “it’s a zero-sum game.” But where does the expression come from, and what is its literal meaning? The swings and roundabouts are antique carnival rides, but how do you lose on one and get it back on t’other?

It took a little digging but the idea of equivalent profit and loss on the swings and roundabouts comes from a very popular children’s poem of the late colonial era. It’s almost forgotten now, but the expression lives on. The poem may not have been the first use of the expression but it “reads right,” and it was widely read. There’s plenty of contemporary rural English slang in it, but there are only two terms that the modern reader will not recognize or at least be able to guess at. A “Pharaoh” was a “carny” or carnival operator, the term actually derives from “gypsy” — it was widely held that gypsies had originally come from Egypt. By extension, a Pharaoh was a boss gypsy. A “lurcher” was an ill-bred dog often used by poachers. OK, without further ado….

Roundabouts and Swings
by Patrick R Chalmers, 1872-1942
written in 1917

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!”

–SG

What do you think? Please enter a comment below.

One Response to “What you lose on the swings…”

  1. conan o'fryan Says:

    Good to have you back sten gazzete!

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