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The phrase What goes around comes around means the someone's behaviour towards other people will amount to their behavior towards this man or woman (akin to the Karma principle or the Bible you reap what you sow).

There are the basic dictionary definitions of the phrasal verbs which make up the idiom:

to go (a)round

  1. to visit a person or a place
  2. to behave or be dressed in a particular way
  3. if something such as an illness or a piece of news is going around, people are giving or telling it to each other
  4. to move in a circle

to come (a)round

  1. to visit a person or a place
  2. if a regular event comes round, it happens again
  3. (of a message, letter, etc.) to reach several people or places
  4. to change your opinion or decision because someone has persuaded you to agree with them

Viewing all these defenitions I fail to establish a relation between them and the meaning of the phrase. Why are these phrasal verbs used to convey the idea of a person's behaviour and its percecutions? It seems the most relevant meanings for to go (a)round is to behave in a particular way and for to come (a)round is happen again, that is the idiom can be rephrased as what behave in a particular way happens again. Still it sounds kind of outlandish. So how do native speakers understand it?

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  • The literal definition of idiom is A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on. If you want to know what an idiom means, you have to look up the entire idiom in a dictionary, not the parts.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 30, 2021 at 10:37
  • @ColleenV Nevertheless, sometimes initial meanings of idiom parts may affect its ultimate meaning. Asking this question I try to better understand those phrasal verbs (what's the way they are viewed by native speakers). However, if your answer is this particular idiom is not the case, I would surely get satisfied. Apr 30, 2021 at 10:39
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    There is no value in trying to connect the parts of an idiom to the meaning of the idiom. Re-read the definition.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 30, 2021 at 10:42
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    What @ColleenV said. Trying to understand this particular idiom by assigning differet meanings to go around and come around is a bit like trying to understand A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do by assigning two different meanings to the two separate instances of man's gotta do. Apr 30, 2021 at 11:56

2 Answers 2

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Idioms often use the full weight of their original meaning through overuse. It is true that the three idioms you quote are used interchangeably by some, but they do mean very different things.

  • The chiefly Buddhist belief of 'Karma' teaches that an individual's actions in life determine what happens to them in the future. As Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, they do not teach that the repercussions of one's actions will necessarily be felt in the same lifetime.
  • The Bible teaching "you will reap what you sow" is part of a wider scriptural passage and is not just a repeating of the Buddhist teaching of Karma. The wider text of the Bible book of Galatians explains that there are only two types of "sowing" (with a view to the flesh, and with a view to the spirit) and two outcomes that can be "reaped" (life or destruction).
  • "What goes around comes around" does not specifically point to an individual's actions coming back upon them, as in the teaching of Karma. It merely suggests that what is 'going around' among the general populace will eventually 'come around' to you - in other words, sooner or later, it will be your turn.
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As @ColleenV says in her comment, an idiom often has a meaning other than what one might figure out by studying the words that make it up.

Yes, "What goes around comes around" is a saying or idiom that basically means, "If you treat others badly you eventually will suffer bad effects." Like many little sayings like that, it is used in different ways. Sometimes people say it to mean, "if you treat others badly, people will come to dislike you and treat you badly in return", i.e. there will be direct unpleasant consequences. Others say it with a more "metaphysical" meaning, like "if you are a bad person ultimately fate or the universe will punish you". That is, some use it to mean direct negative consequences, like, "You lied about Bob, so to get revenge Bob lied about you" or "You stole the money and now you are being arrested." Others use it more abstractly, like, "You cheated Sally, so now you deserve it that in this totally unrelated incident George cheated you."

I don't know who first used the phrase or exactly why they chose that choice of words. Perhaps they were thinking, "you set something moving in a circle -- it 'goes around' -- and now it's completed the circle and come back and hit you -- it "comes around'." "Around" literally referring to circular movement. "Goes" meaning heading away from you, "comes" meaning heading toward you. Like imagine you had a ball tied to a rope that was attached to a poll. (Like tetherball if you're familiar with that game.) You stand holding the ball and you throw it away from you. Because it's attached to a rope, it won't go in a straight line, but will swing around the pole and perhaps hit you in the back of the head. That's the basic idea of what is meant by this phrase.

While it can be amusing to guess at how an idiom came to be or to actually do the research and find out, that usually tells us little about the meaning of the idiom.

Let me make clear that my tetherball explanation is just intended to illustrate the idea. I'm not saying that whoever originated the phrase was necessarily thinking of tetherball. You hear many "folk etymologies" where people study the words of an idiom and make up an explanation of how it might have originated. These are often pure speculation with no historical evidence. Just for example, there's an idiom, "It's raining cats and dogs", meaning that it is raining very hard. I once saw an "explanation" of this that, the writer said, in the Middle Ages pets often lived on the roof of the house, and when it rained hard the roof would become slippery and they would fall off, and so people would describe a heavy rain as "raining cats and dogs". I have no idea if any of this is true. And I doubt that whoever came up with this explanation did either. I strongly suspect he just made it up and decided it sounded plausible so it must be true. (My apologies if there's really any historical evidence that that's how the phrase originated. Personally I consider it unlikely.) Then you'll see these unsubstantiated speculation show up on the Internet on lists with titles like "10 Fascinating Facts That Will Change Your Life".

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