Here’s a whimsical phrase for a Friday, and it’s one that I use all the time.

It means “there is nothing to be said for or against a particular course of action because the advantages and disadvantages are evenly balanced”. In other words, it all amounts to the same thing in the end, cf. Six of one, half a dozen of the other; neither here nor there.

Swings and roundabouts turns out to be the shortened version. The full idiom is: what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts. In my mind, I’d always associated it with children’s playgrounds, but it’s fairground swings and roundabouts that are being referred to. At the beginning of the twentieth century, showmen might not take much money on one ride, but another would be popular and make up for it, as this lovely poem illustrates:

Roundabouts and Swings
by Patrick R Chalmers (1872–1942)

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!”

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