October 14, 2018
You should be careful how you treat others because, as they say, ‘What goes around comes around …’
Believe it or not, I selected this famous saying months ago. As it turns out, one judge, in particular, decided to use this phrase in a purely partisan, angry, inflammatory statement he gave in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Y’all know what happened, but let’s put that aside for a few moments and take a look at this idiom.
What Does ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ Mean?
The idiom “What goes around comes around” (alternatively: “What comes around goes around”) can mean one of two things:
- It can refer to a process of something returning to its original value or place after going through a cycle or rotation (Wiktionary).
- whatever a person does to someone else might be done to them
- The way one person treats another person might determine how the first person is treated at a later time.
- Depending on what a person does, they will face some consequences.
The first sense is rarely used and is more akin to the phrase “full circle.” More often, when we say, “what comes around goes around,” we are using the phrase in the second, third, or fourth sense. This is akin to “You reap what you sow.”
Who First Used the Phrase ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’?
I believe I found the answer, from an old forum post.
The Phrase Finder Forums
On May 23, 2006, a user named Gina started a thread on The Phrase Finder forums to inquire about the origin of the phrase “What goes around, comes around.” Two other users responded to the thread.
On May 23, 2006, a user called ESC responded to Gina’s thread and quoted a passage from the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman.
According to the passage that ESC quoted:
- The phrase arose in the United States in the 1970s.
- The earliest appearance of the quote was in Donald Writes No More (1974) by Eddie Stone.
- The Russian equivalent to “What comes around goes around” is, “As the call, so is the echo.”
However, ESC thought the idiom was a lot older and asked if anyone had an earlier citation.
On May 24, 2006, a user named Steve responded to ESC’s post and gave anecdotal evidence. Steve said that his mother used to use the phrase “You get what you give,” when he was a child in the 1950s. (I can see how he believes this is a similar sentiment, but it’s a different idiom.)
Anyway, it appears that ESC provided the correct answer.
Donald Writes No More
I was able to find Donald Writes No More via Google Books and look inside. According to my search, the phrase “What goes around comes around appeared in the book at least 4 times, including in this passage from page 223:
No one can say why Donald Goines and Shirley Sailor were murdered. The ghetto philosophy, ‘what goes around comes around,’ is the only answer most people can give. It is probably the answer Donald Goines himself would have provided.
(It is obvious that the phrase existed years before, but this is the first recorded instance of it.)
The author gives more context for the use of the idiom in the Epilogue, like on page 229:
And the focus on the protagonist, or main character, differs. Goines gave his characters the same illegal professions he himself had practiced. Setting almost all his books in urban ghettos where the dominant moral standard was ‘what goes around comes around,’ Goines wrote about the pecking order of the workings of ghetto criminal elements; the big fish swallowing the smaller fish. There are not a hellva [SIC] lot of ‘self=made’ men in Goines’ works and those that are there mostly ‘self-made’ it through some highly illegal activities.
Stone goes on to write that even the protagonists in Goines’ works were involved in some sort of exploitation and murder, that they, too, were ruled by the saying “What goes around comes around.” Often, characters in Goines’ works would suffer violent, gruesome deaths (Stone 230).
How Does This Idiom Apply Today?
Most of the time, when we use the idiom, we are talking about interpersonal relationships. We are warning others to be careful about the way they treat others because the people they mistreat will return the favor — or the people we’re warning might meet someone else who treats them just as badly.
In a 2011 contribution for The Huffington Post, Pandit Dasa took that idea further and wrote about karma, especially in terms of his Hindu faith. Dasa took the adage, “What goes around comes around” and spoke about how someone’s past actions could come back to haunt them later in one life or in another life. He believed that nothing significant happened randomly, but it was a bit of karma at work — whether good or bad. In the end, he said that people needed to be careful how they behaved and think carefully about the actions they took.
In a 2016 post for Important India, a user called LightHouse took some of those ideas even further and even talked about the environment. Humans must take care of their environment in order to keep it inhabitable for them. This idea is extremely pertinent now because we are entering a crucial period in human history where drastic action is needed to reduce greenhouse emissions.
According to a report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have 12 years to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions by 45% from 2010 levels. We need to prevent the planet from warming up past the 1.5°C mark by 2030 in order to avert more intense natural disasters and famines that will occur as a result (Miller).
Dasa, Pandit. “Karma: What Goes Around Comes Around.” The Huffington Post. 11 Nov 2011. Updated 11 Jan 2012. Web. Retrieved 14 Oct 2018. <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/gadadhara-pandit-dasa/karma-what-goes-around-comes-around_b_1081057.html>.
LightHouse. “‘What goes around comes around’ – Origin, Meaning, Expansion, and Importance.” Important India. 29 July 2016. Web. Retrieved 14 Oct 2018. <https://www.importantindia.com/23487/what-goes-around-comes-around/>.
Miller, Brandon. “Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change, experts warn.” CNN. 9 Oct 2018. Web. Retrieved 14 October 2018. <https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/07/world/climate-change-new-ipcc-report-wxc/index.html>.
Stone, Eddie. Donald Writes No More: A Biography of Donald Goines. Holloway House Publishing Co. Los Angeles, California; 1974, 1988, 2001, 2003. Print. Page 223, 229-230. Viewed Online via Google Books on 14 October 2018.
Titelman, Gregory Y. Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. Random House. New York; 1996. Print.
Various Authors. “What goes around, comes around.” The Phrase Finder. 23 May 2006. Last Updated 24 May 2006. Online Forum. Retrieved <https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/48/messages/516.html>.
Various Authors. “what goes around comes around.” Wiktionary. Last Updated 19 June 2018. Web. Retrieved 14 Oct 2018. <https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/what_goes_around_comes_around>.
“What comes around goes around | Define What comes around goes around at Dictionary.com.” Dicationary.com. Web. Retrieved 14 Oct 2018. <https://www.dictionary.com/browse/what-goes-around-comes-around>.
“What comes around, goes around – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 14 Oct 2018. <https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/What+goes+around%2c+comes+around>.
“What Goes around Comes around.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. Retrieved 14 Oct. 2018. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/what%20goes%20around%20comes%20around>.