11

The famous aphorism, (and a Justin Timberlake's song) what goes around comes around, appears to have originated in the United States. It refers to a completed cycle, and normally carries a negative connotation.

Merriam-Webster defines it as: “if someone treats other people badly he or she will eventually be treated badly by someone else”

Dictionary.com confirms and adds the ominous foreboding, “Retribution follows wrongdoing; justice may take time, but it will prevail” and suggests the proverb dates from the 1970s.

Oxford Dictionaries simply states, “The consequences of one's actions will have to be dealt with eventually.”

According to this answer on Quora, the earliest instance is from 1962 and the phrase is used repeatedly among the pages of a novel entitled Burn, Killer, Burn! by Paul Crump

“Okay, Joe, this round is yours, only remember, what goes around, comes around, cop?” He edged out of the booth, pulling the girl with him.

“Yeah, I cop. But just so you don't make any mistakes when it comes around, the name is Guy, Guy Morgan, not Joe or Jim.”

However, in a periodical called Science & Society, printed in 1978, the same precept is used, only this time its sense carries a far more positive message.

What this means in human terms is not only that the poor pay more (as Caplowitz tells us), but that the poor share more as well. Stack's monograph contains richly textured descriptions of the way that food, furniture, clothing, appliances, kids and money make the rounds between individuals and households. She subtitles one chapter, "What Goes Round Comes Round," and describes the velocity with which pooling takes place. People try to give what they can and take what they need. […] The pleasures and pressures of such survival networks are predominantly organized around the notion of family.

The anthropologist and author of All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community, (1974) Carol B. Stack, wrote a groundbreaking account of African-American ghettos in the 1970s

The result was a landmark study that debunked the misconception that poor families were unstable and disorganized. On the contrary, her study showed that families in The Flats adapted to their poverty conditions by forming large, resilient, lifelong support networks based on friendship and family that were very powerful, highly structured and surprisingly complex. source

Questions

Did the aphorism, or phrase, originate in the African-American community; is it AAVE (African-American Vernacular English)? Is the 1962 citation, cited in Quora, the earliest known instance? And finally, did “What goes around comes around” originally have a positive interpretation, as suggested by Stack's study, or not?

  • Ngram finds a use in 1964, but context is not particularly accessible. However, what little one can see does not suggest an AAVE connection nor does it hint at a "slant" in either direction. – Hot Licks Oct 24 '17 at 0:52
  • @HotLicks 1964 seems really good, but dates always have to be checked, I spent 30 minutes tracking down a 1936 source only to discover that the journal was really dated 1978. – Mari-Lou A Oct 24 '17 at 0:58
  • 1
    I can't recall when I first heard the term. Was certainly the mid 70s or earlier. I never got the impression that it was AAVE or in any other way "ethnic". As to "slant", it generally seemed to refer to people getting their comeuppance, though I've occasionally heard it used (perhaps ironically) in a positive sense. – Hot Licks Oct 24 '17 at 1:28
  • @HotLicks I see you have placed "slant" in air quotes twice. Am I misusing it? Should I change the term? – Mari-Lou A Oct 24 '17 at 1:30
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: Well, then, in writing they're called "scare quotes". "Air quotes" are a gesture with the same effect (calling the term into question) that are done in speech with the index and middle fingers of each hand, jabbing down simultaneously as if making quote marks in the air. Same idea as "air guitar". – John Lawler Oct 24 '17 at 2:23
6
+150

The earliest instance of the phrase I could find appears in 1952 in The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper. It uses the phrase in parallel to other positive sentiments, suggesting a positive connotation.

They feel a surge of pride in seeing the keen minds and well-balanced temperaments of dark-skinned Olympic competitors placed upon the world scales of sport. They like the work of the technicolored gridders who can squeeze a grunt out of even a dried pigskin. They see that the scales do balance. They realize that what goes around comes around... that life has its compensations.

Wikipedia describes the newspaper:

The Pittsburgh Courier was an African-American newspaper published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from 1907 until October 22, 1966. By the 1930s, the Courier was one of the top black newspapers in the United States.

In the text, "they realize that what goes around comes around" is placed alongside phrases like "they see that the scales do balance," "they feel a surge of pride," and "life has its compensations," suggesting a positive connotation.

This shows that the phrase appeared earlier than 1962, and at least offers some anecdotal support for the theory that the phrase originated in African American culture and originally had a positive connotation.

  • Excellent, fantastic work. And absolutely unexpected. Bravo! – Mari-Lou A Oct 24 '17 at 2:19
  • @Mari-LouA Thank you. It's an excellent question, I hope others keep up the hunt for sources. – RaceYouAnytime Oct 24 '17 at 2:28
  • Although it may have come out of African-American culture, it doesn't sound like AAVE -- it doesn't use its distinctive grammar (e.g. conjugation like "we be"). – Barmar Oct 31 '17 at 16:00
  • @Barmar Sven Yarg's answer goes into greater detail on that. – RaceYouAnytime Oct 31 '17 at 16:09
3

RaceYouAnytime's first recorded occurrence from 1952 will be very difficult to beat, and the fact that the first occurrence is in a newspaper dedicated to a black readership strongly suggests an African American origin of the term.

I have a handful of additional data to offer in support of RaceYouAnytime's answer. First, Charles Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred Shapiro, The [Yale] Dictionary of Modern Proverbs ((2012) has this fairly lengthy entry for the expression:

What goes around comes around.

1961 Proceedings of the Fourteenth Biennial Convention of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union 242: "The need has always been for the Negro to be a full part of the Labor Movement, and I don't think you can deny him this right. And if you do, you are taking away the rights belonging to you, because the old saying goes, 'What goes around comes around.'" 1962 Paul Crump, Burn, Killer Burn! (Chicago: Johnson) 132: "'Yeah,' he sneered, 'I'll hang tough. Only you guys remember—What goes around, comes around.'" Gregory Titelman,]R[andom] H[ouse] D[ictionary of America's Popular] P[roverbs and Sayings (2000)] 355–56; [George Bryan & Wolfgang Mieder,] [A] D[ictionary of] A[nglo-]A[merican] P[roverbs & Proverbial Phrases Found in Literary Sources of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (2005)] 831; [Fred Shapiro,] Y[ale] B[ook of] Q[uotations] Modern Proverbs [(2006)] (37); [Jennifer Speake,] [The] O[xford] Dictionary of] P[roverbs], fifth edition (2008) 134–35; [other citations omitted]. Also occurring is a variant (or counter-proverb?—but the meaning seems to be the same): "What comes around, goes around." 1974 Title of a "soul" song by Dr. John: "What Comes Around (Goes Around)." 1983 Karen Payne, Between Ourselves: Letters between Mothers and Daughters (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) 267 (in a letter dated 1 Dec. 1980): "It seemed significant, having lost three friends that past winter, that three new lives would enter the valley next winter. What comes around, goes around, right?"

Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994) has no doubt that the expression is of African American origin:

WHAT GO ROUND COME ROUND

A proverb that expresses perhaps the essence of traditional "root culture" Blacks' belief about life, that whatever has happened before will occur again, even if in a different form. In a study of over a thousand proverbs used by African Americans, this was found to be the most frequently used proverb in the African American community (study conducted by Jack L. Daniel, Geneva Smitherman-Donaldson, and Milford Jeremiah, reported in "'Makin a Way Outa No Way': The Proverb Tradition in the Black Experience, Journal of Black Studies, June 1987).

In an Elephind search, the earliest match for the expression is from 1966 in another primarily black-focused newspaper. From William Alexander, "Time for Talk," in the Indianapolis [Indiana] Recorder (July 23, 1966):

I had the occasion to run into Attorney Robert G. Mann at Scotty's Lounge and he was very adept at making funny remarks concerning the "Muhammad Speaks" Newspaper. I had just purchased one to read and he asked me to see it. I showed it to him and he remarked to Gary Jones and City Prosecutor Taylor Baker, along with others, this is the weekly edition of The Recorder. I remarked that is about the size of it. I feel that any person is entitled to purchase anything that he so chooses, if he has the money to pay for it. What a smug look he had on his face then. Well what goes around comes around, right, Robert G.

An interesting bit of evidence that the expression was not well known in the broader U.S. culture as late as the middle 1970s involves an evident typo in aquotation. From Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board (1974): [combined snippets]:

In November 1970, Jackson returned, again for Jervier's signature on the "new contract," this time also presenting to and asking Jervier to sign a paper deauthorizing GRAMC to act as his bargaining agent. After a telephone conversation with a GRAMC official, in the presence of Jackson, Jervier refused to sign either the deauthorization slip or the contract. Jackson warned him, "There is no win and what does around, comes around . . . . [You're] not doing [your]self any good for not signing." Soon thereafter (December 9, l970)——still in the context of continuing refusal by Jervier to heed Jackson's demands to sign a "new contract" with Local 705—Jervier instructed his employee, Reed, to supply customers with dimes at their request when needed for the use of the restroom; but Reed refused. Later, when a woman—apparently a regular caller—telephoned Reed again and Jervier asked her not to call so often, Reed called Jervier a "dirty black f—er."

In this account, Jackson's race is not identified, but Jervier is black. It seems likely that both Jackson and Jervier were familiar with the expression "what goes around comes around," but the person proofreading the NLRB decisions evidently was not.

Finally, Lewis King, Vernon Dixon & Wade Nobles, African Philosophy: Assumption & Paradigms for Research on Black Persons (1976) has this to say about the expression:

This point is well demonstrated by one of our more common proverbs. The Black child who is told that "what goes around comes around" may be receiving a specific admonition with regard to the consequences of his behavior, but he is simultaneously experiencing a reinforcement of the African world view, namely, that there are vital connections among events and experiences. Both the specific admonition and the general philosophical perspective are synthesized in the child's developing conception of the world. ...

...

It is no accident, then, that "what goes around comes around" is a common African-American proverb. As suggested above, the concept of continuity between events and experiences that is so fundamental to the African world view is clearly expressed here.

1

It seems likely that the phrase "what goes around comes around" was inspired by two verses in the KJV also known as the King James Bible. Completed in 1611, by the 18th century it reigned supreme in North America, and it is still the most used translation in the United States and among African Americans the preferred version.

  • Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. (Galatians 6:7)
  • But this [I say], He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. (2 Corinthians 9:6)

This axiom was later shortened to

reap what one sows
(idiomatic) To receive as a reward or harvest in the same measure as one's exertions, in a good or a bad sense. To receive justice. Wiktionary

KJV in the USA: The Impact of the King James Bible in the USA

  • I don't see how this shows a concrete relationship between these verses the axiom with what comes around goes around. And the KJV was the best selling version among whites as well. I'm eagerly awaiting an answer to your great question. – 9fyj'j55-8ujfr5yhjky-'tt6yhkjj Oct 28 '17 at 19:30
  • @Clare it's a hypothesis, "it seems likely", and I thought it was noteworthy. – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 '17 at 19:32
  • Is it a proper hypothesis if it presents no supporting evidence? – 9fyj'j55-8ujfr5yhjky-'tt6yhkjj Oct 28 '17 at 20:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.