First come, first served – Origin, Meaning, Expansion and Significance


The exact date of the first usage of this phrase is uncertain. However, the phrase was certainly first used before the 1900s. It originates in the practices of shopkeepers, who often stated that they had a ‘first come, first served’ policy for their shops.

The phrase was sometimes shortened to the acronym FCFS on shop signs, so that customers were aware that the shopkeeper operated according to this policy.

Since then, however, the phrase has entered common parlance and has acquired a broader and more general meaning.


The ‘first come’ part of the phrase or proverb means ‘the first person (or people) to arrive’. The ‘first served’ part means ‘the first to receive’.

So, putting these two elements of the phrase together, we can say that this phrase means that the first person to arrive will be the first person to receive a certain thing. That could be service in a shop or it could be a slice of cake at a birthday party.

‘Served’ in this phrase does not necessarily literally mean that the addressee of a phrase will be served food or treated as if the other person is their servant. The phrase is more flexible than that.

‘Served’ can thus mean several things here, including:

– Spoken to.

– Dealt with.

– Provided with goods or services.

The phrase is often used when there are a number of people queuing to get the same thing. In this situation, the phrase functions as a way of managing those people’s expectations. When demand exceeds supply, it is good to have a ruling principle like this one that can keep things orderly.

Expansion of the idea.

The intention behind the phrase is to emphasize that it is good to be first in the queue for something because then you are more likely to get it.

However, with the proverb, the meaning is somewhat flexible. They can literally mean that getting up early in the day will help us to achieve more things. But they can also mean, more metaphorically, that being driven and motivated to head straight for our goals can really pay off.


1. A polite excuse: sometimes, this phrase is used as a kind of excuse, when there are only a limited number of items to be distributed. For instance if there are only a few concert tickets available, the concert managers may excuse their inability to give everyone tickets by saying ‘first come, first served’ and giving them only to the first people in the queue.

2. Motivation: this reminds us not to dawdle, and suggests that promptness and punctuality will be rewarded. As such, it is a great way to help ourselves to show up on time to everything from lectures to sports practice.

3. Encouraging orderly behavior: the phrase encourages people to act in an orderly fashion – forming queues and respecting the fact that people at the front of the queue will be served first.

4. Equality: some might argue that this phrase treats people equally. People are not divided by wealth or social status, but simply by who is at the front of the queue.

5. Rewarding enthusiasm: this phrase celebrates the fact that enthusiasm and passion for a subject will be rewarded.

6. A consolation: if you do not get what you wanted, you can always console yourself by saying this phrase and reminding yourself that it was simply that you did not arrive in time to get it.

7. Encouraging us to get up and start the day: this phrase will help us to get out of bed in the morning and take advantage of any opportunities that come our way.


‘First come first served’ is a great phrase to remember if we want to motivate ourselves to turn up and seize all of the opportunities that we can. Though it originates in the practices of shopkeepers, this versatile phrase can be applied to so many different occasions, from university and school work to job interviews.

Whether we use it as an encouragement to polite behavior or as a reminder that enthusiasm will always pay off, this is an excellent phrase to bear in mind throughout our lives.

Read more in Wikipedia.

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