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A wooden roly-poly toy (sense 1.1).
A sliced jam roly-poly (sense 1.5).
Schizidium tiberianum, a species of roly-poly (sense 1.6) or pill bug. This specimen has completely rolled into a ball.

The noun is apparently derived from roll (to turn over and over) +‎ -y (suffix forming adjectives with the sense ‘having the quality of’), reduplicated with a change of the initial consonant. Compare rolly (having the ability to roll, rolling, adjective), which is attested since the 19th century.[1]

Sense 1.7 (“mischievous or worthless person”) is possibly influenced by poll (head; (archaic) scalp; (by extension) person).

The adjective and adverb are attested later than the noun, and so are probably derived from it.[1]



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

  1. (countable)
    1. A toy that rights itself when pushed over.
      • 1950 November 27, “American-made Toys … for American Girls and Boys [advertisement]”, in Henry R[obinson] Luce, editor, Life, Chicago, Ill., New York, N.Y.: Time Inc., →ISSN, →OCLC, page 79:
        BOBO The Roly Poly Clown / Punch him—beat him—tackle him—Bobo will bounce right back with a smile!
      • 1972, Arden J. Newsome, “Japanese”, in Crafts and Toys from around the World, New York, N.Y.: Julian Messner, →ISBN, page 67:
        Among the many adaptations of the Japanese tumbler toy are those known to American children as a roly-poly and a Kelly.
      • 2012, Jill Hamor, “Toys [Roly-poly Duck]”, in Lynn Koolish, editor, Storybook Toys: Sew 16 Projects from Once upon a Time, Lafayette, Calif.: Stash Books, C&T Publishing, →ISBN, page 108:
        Though most often made of plastic, roly-poly tumble toys were commonly found in mid-century toy boxes.
    2. (informal) A short, plump person (especially a child).
      Synonyms: see Thesaurus:fat person
      • 1880, Amy Fay, “The War. German Meals. Women and Men. Tausig’s Teaching. Tausig Abandons His Conservatory. Dresden. Kullak.”, in Music-study in Germany. [], 5th edition, Chicago, Ill.: Jansen, McClurg & Company, published 1883, →OCLC, page 80:
        The Germans have a great idea that you must "stärken (strengthen)" yourself. So they eat every few hours. [] The German women are plump roly-polies, as a general rule, and it is probably in consequence of this continual "strengthening."
      • 1893 December 1, Bishop of Jamaica [Enos Nuttall?], “Jamaica Church Ladies’ Association in England”, in The Net Cast in Many Waters: Sketches from the Life of Missionaries, for 1893, volume 28, number 1, London, Derby, Derbyshire: Bemrose & Sons [], →OCLC, 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.
    3. (gymnastics) A forward roll or sideways roll.
      Synonym: somersault
      • 1994, Patty Claycomb, “Roly-poly”, in Gayle Bittinger, editor, Bear Hugs for Circle Time: Positive Activities that Encourage Children to Pay Attention, Everett, Wash.: Warren Publishing House, →ISBN, 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, “Nursery Class Activities for the Primary School Hall”, in Physical Education in the Early Years (Teaching and Learning in the First Three Years at School), London, New York, N.Y.: Routledge, →ISBN, page 57:
        Children of this age can rarely complete a forward roll or somersault properly. [] 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. (Australia) Synonym of tumbleweed (any plant which habitually breaks away from its roots once dry, forming a light, rolling mass which is driven by the wind from place to place); specifically, the prickly Russian thistle (Kali tragus or Salsola tragus).
    5. (British, also attributively) A baked or steamed pudding made from suet pastry which is spread with fruit or jam (or occasionally other fillings) and then rolled up.
      • 1846 February 28 – 1847 February 27, W[illiam] M[akepeace] Thackeray, “Snobs and Marriage”, in The Book of Snobs, London: Punch Office, [], published 1848, →OCLC, pages 135 and 137:
        [page 135] "Fanny has made the roly-poly pudding," says he; "the chops are my part. Here's a fine one; try this, Goldmore." [] [page 137] The three mutton-chops consumed by him were best of the mutton kind; the potatoes were perfect of their order; as for the roly-poly, it was too good.
      • 1869, Emma Jane Worboise, “Mrs. Matthews’ Family”, in The Fortunes of Cyril Denham, London: James Clarke & Co., []; Hodder & Stoughton, [], →OCLC, page 190:
        And he hates rabbit, and never touches roly-poly, and I must say the beef isn't over tender; [] Dinner began and proceeded till the last piece of the roly-poly pudding was consumed, though not by Cyril; []
      • 1873 March 26, “Rose Anna: Regina: Henry is Troubled in His Conscience”, in C[harles] H[enry] Ross, editor, Judy, or The London Serio-comic Journal, volume XII, London: Published by the proprietor [], →OCLC, page 233, column 1:
        This is, indeed, an awful meal, and we have as yet only reached the joint, and there is a detestable, indigestible, unswallowable jam roly-poly to follow.
    6. (Canada, US) In full roly-poly bug: a small terrestrial invertebrate which tends to roll into a ball when disturbed, such as a woodlouse (suborder Oniscidea, especially a pill bug (family Armadillidiidae) or a sowbug (family Porcellionidae)) or a pill millipede (superorder Oniscomorpha).
      • 1960 July 11, Harper Lee, chapter 25, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Philadelphia, Pa., New York, N.Y.: J[oshua] B[allinger] Lippincott Company, →OCLC, part 2, page 251:
        A roly-poly had found his way inside the house; I reasoned that the tiny varmint had crawled up the steps. [] The creatures are no more than an inch long, and when you touch them they roll themselves into a tight gray ball.
      • 1995, Henry W. Robison, Robert T. Allen, “Subphylum Crustacea: Crustaceans”, in Only in Arkansas: A Study of the Endemic Plants and Animals of the State, Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, →ISBN, page 45:
        Terrestrial isopods, commonly known as pill bugs, sow bugs, or roly-polys, are generally familiar to most of us.
      • 1997, Clark M. Williamson, Ronald J[ames] Allen, “Worship as the Power of God”, in Adventures of the Spirit: A Guide to Worship from the Perspective of Process Theology, Lanham, Md., Oxford, Oxfordshire: University Press of America, →ISBN, 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). She delights in the wonder and fun of the children as they play gently with the tiny bugs.
      • 2002 May 26, J[effrey] J. Rowland, Wigu Adventures[1] (webcomic), archived from the original on 2009-12-13:
        [Romy Tinkle] What is that thing, Quincy?! / [Quincy Tinkle] Um … It's a giant Rolly Polly (Pill Bug). It's been living entirely on my body-building protein powder, apparently!!
    7. (obsolete) A mischievous or worthless person; a scoundrel, a rascal.
      Synonyms: see Thesaurus:troublemaker, Thesaurus:worthless person
  2. (uncountable, historical) An activity or game involving rolling.
    • 1712, Humphry Polesworth [pseudonym; John Arbuthnot], “The Sequel of the History of the Meeting at the Salutation”, in Lewis Baboon Turned Honest, and John Bull Politician. Being the Fourth Part of Law is a Bottomless-Pit. [], London: [] John Morphew, [], →OCLC, page 6:
      If this be your Play (quoth John) that vve may not be like a Quaker's dumb Meeting, let us begin ſome Diverſion; vvhat d'ye think of Rouly-Pouly, or a Country-Dance?
    1. (games) A game involving people (usually children) rolling down a slope.
      • 1821, John Clare, “[Poems.] Recollections after a Ramble.”, in The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems, volume I, London: [] [T. Miller] for Taylor and Hessey, []; and E[dward] Drury, [], →OCLC, stanza 8, page 128:
        Often I did view the shade / Where once a nest my eyes did fill, / And often mark'd the place I play'd / At "roly poly" down the hill.
    2. (games) A game in which balls are rolled along the floor to knock down pins, or bowled into holes, or thrown into hats placed on the ground.
      • 1841, Joseph Strutt, William Hone, chapter VII, in The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. [], new edition, London: [] Thomas Tegg, [], →OCLC, book III (Pastimes usually Exercised in Towns and Cities, or Places Adjoining to Them), section XII (Half-bowl), page 274:
        This is one of the games prohibited by Edward IV.; and received its denomination from being played with one half of a sphere of wood. Half-bowl is practised to this day in Hertfordshire, where it is commonly called rolly-polly; and it is best performed upon the floor of a room, especially if it be smooth and level. There are fifteen small pins of a conical form required for this pastime; [] the bowl, when delivered, must pass above the pins, and round the end-pin, without the circle, before it beats any of them down; if not, the cast is forfeited: []
      • 1890, John D[enison] Champlin [Jr.], Arthur E[lmore] Bostwick, “Roly-poly, or Nine Holes”, in The Young Folk’s Cyclopædia of Games and Sports, 2nd edition, New York, N.Y.: Henry Holt and Company, →OCLC, pages 585–586:
        ROLY-POLY, or NINE HOLES, a game of ball played by any number of persons, generally nine. [] The Roller tries to roll the ball into one of the holes. If he makes three consecutive misses, a pebble is placed in his hole. [] 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. In this case the ball is pitched instead of rolled.
      • 1927, Ellsworth Collings, “Education as Growth”, in School Supervision in Theory and Practice, New York, N.Y.: Thomas Y[oung] Crowell Company, →OCLC, part I (The Improvement of Supervision Theory), page 6:
        "Gee, we can play Roly Poly," argued John. "We can play right in this room." / "Sure," agreed Bobby. "All we'll have to do is to make our triangle and bowling lines."
    3. (gaming) Synonym of roulette (a game of chance in which a small ball is made to move round rapidly on a circle divided off into numbered red and black spaces, the one on which it stops indicating the result of a variety of wagers permitted by the game)
      • 1744, “An Act to Explain, Amend, and Make More Effectual the Laws in Being, to Prevent Excessive and Deceitful Gaming; and to Restrain and Prevent the Excessive Increase of Horse Races”, in Anno Regni Georgii II. Regis Magnæ Britanniæ, Franciæ, & Hiberniæ, Decimo Octavo. [] [In the Year of the Reign of George II. King of Great Britain, France, & Ireland, the Eighteenth [...]], London: [] Thomas Baskett, printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty; and by the assigns of Robert Baskett, published 1745, →OCLC, section 2, page 712:
        And be it further enacted by the Authority aforeſaid, That if any Perſon or Perſons whatſoever ſhall, after the ſaid Twenty fourth Day of June, One thouſand ſeven hundred and forty five, play at the ſaid Game of Roulet, otherwiſe Roly-poly, or at any Game of Chance with Cards or Dice, already prohibited by Law, every ſuch Perſon or Perſons ſo offending, ſhall alſo incur the Pains and Penalties, and be liable to ſuch Proſecution, as is directed in and by an Act made in the Twelfth Year of the Reign of His preſent Majeſty, intituled, An Act for the more effectual preventing exceſſive and deceitful Gaming.

Alternative forms[edit]



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

  1. Moving with a rolling and swaying motion.
    • 1908 October, Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding, London: Frederick Warne, →OCLC; republished as The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or The Roly-Poly Pudding (eBook #15575)‎[2], U.S.A.: Project Gutenberg, 6 April 2005:
      "Oh! Mother, Mother, there has been an old man rat in the dairy—a dreadful 'normous big rat, mother; and he's stolen a pat of butter and the rolling-pin." [] "A rolling-pin?" said Ribby. "Did we not hear a roly-poly noise in the attic when we were looking into that chest?" Ribby and Tabitha rushed upstairs again. Sure enough the roly-poly noise was still going on quite distinctly under the attic floor.
    • 1966, James Workman, The Mad Emperor, Melbourne, Vic., Sydney, N.S.W.: Scripts, →OCLC, page 52:
      Seianus bowed, the awkward roly-poly jerk of the fat man.
  2. (often childish or humorous, informal) Short and plump; squat.
    Synonyms: see Thesaurus:overweight
    • 1867, Grace Ramsay [pseudonym; Kathleen O’Meara], chapter IX, in A Woman’s Trials. [], volume II, London: Hurst and Blackett, [], →OCLC, 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 August, Paul Simon (lyrics and music), “You Can Call Me Al”, in Graceland, performed by Paul Simon:
      He ducked back down the alley / With some roly-poly little bat-faced girl




  1. By rolling, so as to roll.
  2. (obsolete) Without hesitating; directly; hence, in a thoughtless manner; indiscriminately.



  1. 1.0 1.1 roly-poly, n., adv., and adj.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2022.roly-poly”, in Lexico,; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.

Further reading[edit]