‘What Goes Around Comes Around’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on November 26, 2022

Has anyone ever told you, ‘what goes around, comes around?’ but you aren’t sure what they mean? In this article, we’ll explore the definition, origin, and examples.

This idiom is most often used to express that people’s actions have consequences that they inevitably have to deal with, even if it takes a long time for these consequences to appear.

What Does ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ Mean?

There are a number of related meanings of ‘what goes around comes around.’ These are:

  • Something that a person does to another person might also be done to them
  • People’s actions have consequences that they will eventually face
  • The way one individual treats another could determine how the first individual is treated later on
  • The process of something returning to its original place or value after going through a rotation or cycle

You will also occasionally hear it said or see it written as “what comes around goes around.”

The first three similar meanings represent the most common uses of this phrase. Definition number four isn’t often used, and it is more similar to the phrase “coming full circle.”

This idiom can mean that there are effects on people’s actions down the road that are in line with the initial intent (i.e., good actions receive positive consequences and bad actions receive negative consequences.) It’s commonly used in reference to the actions of a person that are perceived as bad, immoral, or problematic and the fact that there will inevitably be negative effects that the person will have to deal with.

You might hear ‘what goes around comes around’ said in response to minor or major occurrences. For example, if someone dropped a piece of litter on the street and didn’t pick it up, a friend could use this phrase to convey the idea that someone else could leave garbage on the first person’s home street. Someone could also say, ‘what goes around comes around’ when they hear of the hefty jail sentence given to a criminal that committed a heinous act.

Whether in response to something big or small, this is a familiar phrase that is fairly common in English.

Where Does This Idiom Come From?

The initial origin of the idiom ‘what goes around comes around’ isn’t entirely clear.

According to a passage from the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, the phrase first became popular in the 1970s in the United States. The earliest appearance of ‘what goes around comes around’ in print is in the 1974 Eddie Stone book Donald Writes No More.

From the quote in the book, it is clear from the context that the phrase has been around for quite some time before the publishing of the biography:

“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.”

You can see that the way the idiom is being used is as a reference to a known phrase rather than as the invention of a new one.

In looking at the Google Books Ngram Viewer, you can see that the phrase seems to appear in print as early as 1950, but it doesn’t become commonly used until a little before 1970.

Interestingly, this proverb dictionary also notes that there is a Russian saying that is equivalent to this American idiom, which is ‘as the call, so is the echo.’

Using ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ in a Sentence

Now that we know the meaning of ‘what goes around comes around' and roughly where it comes from let’s look at some sentence examples.

  • Ron is upset that he was robbed, but after forty years of thieving, you’d think he’d know that what goes around comes around.
  • She couldn’t believe that he had broken up with her, but I was not that surprised. After all, she’d been treating him horribly for years, and what goes around comes around.
  • A part of me feels sorry for him, but he has always been so self-involved and uncaring. Now that he needs help, it’s hard not to think what goes around comes around.
  • I know you don’t want to do the right thing, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but what goes around comes around.

Other Ways to Say 'What Goes Around Comes Around' in a Sentence

If you’re interested in the meaning of ‘what goes around comes around,’ you might be curious to learn more about some idioms and phrases that have similar and related meanings.

  • You reap what you sow.
  • As the call, so is the echo
  • The chickens come home to roost
  • Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind

Learning English idioms can feel overwhelming at first, but it’s really a lot of fun once you have a number of them under your belt to sprinkle throughout conversations and writing. Be sure to check out our idioms blog for more fun phrases to learn. Until then, keep up the good work!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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