Our friend Mark Cooke, trumpet player extraordinaire and financial advisor par excellence, asked me the other day if I had ever heard of a round robin letter, and if so, where the term came from. I recalled hearing the term but didn’t know much about it, and certainly didn’t know the history of the phrase. I was familiar with the round robin tournament, in which every player or teams plays every other player or team until something else happens. There’s also a single-elimination tournament (you lose, you go home) and the double elimination tournament (you lose twice, you go home). A church softball team I was on several years ago was involved in a double elimination tournament. We were not competitive or very good, but we managed to win the first game. We hope we would lose the next two games quickly because the day was hot and we were tired. We did. I know, we were a terrible example for the youth of America. But we lived to play another year.
Mark described his family’s experience with the round robin letter as starting about the time of the Korean War. One family member would write a letter about that branch of the family, kind of like the Christmas letters everyone loves to hate. (We do one at Christmas every year but limit ourselves to about a page each. Our daughters and Becky are excellent writers so maybe it’s not so bad. As for me, you can judge for yourself every week how that works out.) That family member sends the letter to another one, who adds a letter and sends it on to the next member of the family in the chain. When the letters get back to the original writer, he or she removes the original letter and puts in an update. And so the robin has gone ‘round and ‘round in Mark’s family for over fifty years. I found some other articles about round robins that indicated they were popular in World War II as a means of keeps far-flung families in touch with each other. I was describing this phenomenon to a young person who said (facetiously, I hope), “Why didn’t they just use Facebook?” I suspect social media would have put an end to round robins even if old age and death of the writers hadn’t. We all know what has happened to letter writing recently, and it’s a shame. The round robin is a charming reminder of an earlier era when mail was delivered twice or three times a day in some cities.
As for the name, apparently it dates from seventh century French usage. It was called ruban rond (round ribbon) and described the practice of signatories to petitions against authority (usually government officials petitioning the Crown) appending their names on a document in a non-hierarchical circle or ribbon pattern (and so disguising the order in which they have signed) in order that none could be identified as a ring leader.
The practice was adopted by sailors petitioning officers in the Royal Navy (first recorded 1731)
The term round-robin is recorded in English much earlier, although not with the above meaning. It first appears in 1546 meaning someone who is round and called Robin (oddly enough), and appears later applied to troublemakers: “These Wat Tylers and Round-Robins being driven or persuaded out of Whitehall abc” (1671). Wat Tyler was, of course, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 and he led 50,000 peasants to London to demand an end to an oppressive poll tax. They were met by a large force of mounted knights and it was no contest between armored knights and largely unarmed peasants. Wat himself was killed. Apparently Round Robin was another dissenter about whom the details have been lost to history. It would be easier to take an insurrectionist named Wat Tyler seriously than one named Round Robin. Maybe Robin took his name from the practice of signing petitions in a circle.
In British usage, “round robin” applies specifically to Christmas letters. They seem to be the subject of more vehement vituperation than is usually accorded their American cousins. It’s my impression that the British roundly abhor anything that even mildly hints at bragging. Americans seem to regard sharing the family’s accomplishments as news that everyone is anxious to know.
So, maybe you, Faithful Readers, would like to bring back the custom of the round robin. They’re not nearly as amusing as passing a fruitcake around for decades, but they are much more informative.