I know "swings and roundabouts" means "gains and losses that offset each other", but I can't understand. Any story behind this?


When children play at the park, their time on the swings for unexpected reasons may be curtailed so they are allowed extra time on the roundabouts. So what they lost on the swings they gained on the roundabouts.

The metaphor is in wide use in Britain for almost any instance where one needs to point out some compensatory effect that has taken place.

The breakfast was poor in the hotel but there was a sumptuous supper. So what we lost on the swings...

It is all explained by the Free Dictionary

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    Do you always lose on the swings and gain on the roundabouts, or can it be the other way round? – Rand al'Thor Dec 21 '14 at 17:45
  • @randal'thor - Good question. I'd say you could reverse it for effect (slightly changing the familiar format in order to draw more attention to the specifics of the situation you are describing). Of course, when people extemporize in speech they frequently mangle set phrases and expressions, so tweaking the metaphor might be more effective on the page than when it comes out of one's mouth. – Erik Kowal Dec 21 '14 at 21:38
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    @randal'thor Try: 'what you lose on the zip wire, you gain on the bouncy castle'! – WS2 Dec 21 '14 at 21:41
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    'What you eat on the concourse, you lose on the roundabouts.' – Edwin Ashworth Dec 21 '14 at 23:31
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    I didn't think it was about children playing, but about fairground owners who offered both swings and roundabouts as paying rides. Reduced takings on one was compensated by increased takings on the other. – DJClayworth Feb 14 '16 at 20:13

The full expression is

What you lose on the swings, you make up for on the roundabouts.

Its origin is from the fairground. For whatever reason, the fairground owner may be losing money on the swings, but gaining it on the roundabouts. So the situation is balanced.

For example:

"They're giving everyone a pay rise, but now we're all expected to work longer hours. So, swings and roundabouts, really..."

It's closely related to the other expression

Six of one and half a dozen of the other

which also means that two things are roughly equal when all the pros and cons are totted up. However, this one is more likely to be used when you're weighing up the situation, before a decision is made:

"If I get the first train, I'll arrive too early and have to wait, but if I get the next train, it will be really full with all the commuters. It's six of one and half a dozen of the other."

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    I am intrigued by your description of the fairground origin of the term. Would you be able to point to any particular source that mentions it? – Erik Kowal Dec 21 '14 at 21:33
  • @ErikKowal See my comment at OP. – Kris Feb 14 '16 at 15:15

I have just read the poem "Roundabouts and Swings" written by Patrick R. Chalmers and published in 1912, which user 160355 mentions.


The third and fourth lines in the second stanza, where the 'Pharaoh' (gypsy/gipsy) answers the question

"'ow d'you find things go?"


"I find […] things very much as 'ow I've always found, / For mostly they goes up and down or else goes round and round."

confirm what I intuited (before having a look at the website below):

on the swings or see-saws, what the person at one end of the plank or beam gains (height, here), the other loses in equal amount, whereas on roundabouts or merry-go-rounds everybody remains on the same level.

A bit subtler than gaining on one machine what you lost on the other!

You get by anyway, with ups and downs at times, and with nothing changing much at other times.

The third and last stanza ends with the line

An' losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!

The same machines are used again, in a less graphic manner, no longer to do with the way they move: the idea is of a bad investment (roundabouts, expensive machines to buy and work?) and a good investment (swings, inexpensive 'machines', worked by the users themselves?), one making up for the other… a mind doing the splits between poetry and banking?! (the poet, Irish, was a banker in London, after all…)


  • a link to the poem? – user58319 Feb 14 '16 at 15:20
  • Isn't it obvious?! No one else has bothered to post a link... Don't forget to cite the year it was written. – Mari-Lou A Feb 14 '16 at 15:21
  • the problem with my contention is that the author of the poem himself clouds the issue! seems to say that merry-go-rounds make him lose money (a complicated machine, expensive to work) whereas swings make up for it (simple machines, for the working of which the users provide the energy themsleves!), reinterpreting what meant something different at first – user58319 Feb 14 '16 at 16:18
  • In fairgrounds customers are willing to pay to go on the roundabouts and on the swings. Some days the owner makes more money on the roundabouts, but on others he makes more money on the swings. You can never be sure what rides the paying public will prefer from one day to the next; likewise "life" is unpredictable, whatever advantage you lose you may later regain, sooner or later. – Mari-Lou A Feb 14 '16 at 22:51

The expression comes from the poem "Roundabouts and Swings" by Patrick R Chalmers. The poet was an Irish banker who worked in London around 1900. It's about an encounter with a gypsy (Pharoe) traveling show. It's a great poem!

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!"


  • Welcome to English Language & Usage. Your post doesn't answer the question and reads more like a comment. Please make sure that you take the tour and visit our help center for additional guidance. You can post a comment when you have more than 50 reputation points. – user140086 Feb 14 '16 at 7:06
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    Good answers should be self-contained. Instead of asking the OP to Google a poem, why not cite a verse from the poem, provide a link to the page which, you believe, is the most helpful? – Mari-Lou A Feb 14 '16 at 15:15
  • apparently, this is not the origin of the expression: english.stackexchange.com/questions/169134/… – sumelic Feb 24 '16 at 22:43

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