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Apparently from roll with -y, reduplicated with change of the initial consonant perhaps influenced by poll (head, scalp). Attested (sometimes spelled rowle-powle) since the seventeenth century. Compare rolly, which is attested since the nineteenth century.[1]


roly-poly (comparative more roly-poly, superlative most roly-poly)

  1. (colloquial, often childish or humorous) Short and plump.
    • 1867, Grace Ramsay, A Woman’s Trials[1], page 157:
      She had been waiting for the little roly-poly man to tumble and roll along the deck, and had been mentally indulging her sense of humour on the scene.
    • 1986, Paul Simon (lyrics and music), “You Can Call Me Al”, in Graceland:
      He ducked back down the alley / With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl
  2. Moving with a roll and sway.
    • 1966, James Workman, The Mad Emperor, Melbourne, Sydney: Scripts, page 52:
      Seianus bowed, the awkward roly-poly jerk of the fat man.



  1. By rolling, so as to roll.
    • 1908, Beatrix Potter, The Roly-Poly Pudding[2]:
      Tom Kitten bit and spat, and mewed and wriggled; and the rolling-pin went roly-poly, roly; roly, poly, roly.
  2. (obsolete) Directly, without hesitating.


A wooden roly-poly toy (5)

roly-poly (countable and uncountable, plural roly-polys or roly-polies)

  1. (colloquial) A short, plump person.
    Synonyms: see Thesaurus:fat person
    • 1893, “Jamaica Church Ladies’ Association in England”, in The Net[3], page 190:
      In a few weeks ‘our baby’ was a regular roly-poly, fat and frolicsome. Has she forgotten all the neglect? God grant it.
    • 1991 [1875], Amy Fay, Music-study in Germany[4], page 80:
      The German women are plump roly-polies, as a general rule, and it is probably in consequence of this continual “strengthening.”
  2. (Britain) A steamed pudding made from suet pastry containing jam or fruit.
    • 1869, Emma Jane Worboise, The Fortunes of Cyril Denham[5], page 190:
      Dinner began and proceeded till the last piece of the roly-poly pudding was consumed, though not by Cyril
    • 1873, “Rose Anna: Regina”, in Judy, Or the London Serio-comic Journal[6], volume 12, page 233:
      This is, indeed, an awful meal [] and there is a detestable, indigestible, unswallowable jam roly-poly to follow.
  3. (gymnastics) A forward roll or sideways roll.
    Synonyms: forward roll, somersault
    • 1994, Patty Claycomb, Bear Hugs for Circle Time, page 14:
      When you are finished with circle time, dismiss your children by helping each one do a roly-poly roll (a somersault) and roll away to their next activity.
    • 1997, Pauline Wetton, Physical Education in the Early Years[7], page 57:
      A ‘roly poly’ roll or a tucked sideways roll will give the children just as much pleasure and also enough exercise and knowlege of turning and rolling at this stage of their development.
  4. A terrestrial crustacean of suborder Oniscidea; pill bug, potato bug or sowbug.
    Synonyms: see Thesaurus:woodlouse
    • 1995, Henry Robison and Robert Allen, Only in Arkansas: A Study of the Endemic Plants and Animals of the State[8], page 45:
      Terrestrial isopods, commonly known as pill bugs, sow bugs, or roly-polys, are generally familiar to most of us.
    • 1997, Clark Williamson and Ronald Allen, Adventures of the Spirit[9], page 76:
      From the window, she sees them discover a colony of roly-polies (tiny gray bugs that roll into miniature balls in the presence of danger).
  5. A toy that rights itself when pushed over.
    • 1950 November 27, “American-Made Toys [advertisement]”, in Life[10], page 79:
      BOBO The Roly Poly Clown ¶ Punch him — beat him — tackle him — Bobo will bounce right back with a smile!
    • 1971, Arden J. Newsome, Crafts and Toys from around the World, page 67:
      Among the many adaptations of the Japanese tumbler toy are those known to American children as a roly-poly and a Kelly.
  6. (uncountable) An old game in which balls are bowled into holes or thrown into hats placed on the ground.
    • 1890, John Champlin and Arthur Bostwick, The Young Folk’s Cyclopædia of Games and Sports:
      Roly Poly is a very old English game. It is sometimes played in England with hats instead of holes, and it is then often called Egg Hat.
    • 1930, Ellsworth Collings, Psychology for Teachers, page 185:
      “We’d have to play outdoors though,” continued Kenneth. “Don’t you see it’s raining.” ¶ “Gee, we can play Roly Poly,” argued John.


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Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ roly-poly, n., adv., and adj.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, November 2010.