Expressions with Turn

By Maeve Maddox

I find the word “turn”, its usage, and its derivatives tricky at times. Can we elaborate on “turn” please?

My first reaction to this reader’s suggestion was, “what can possibly be said about turn that would fill a post?”

But then I started typing all the “turn” expressions I could think of and came up with dozens. Next I went to the OED online edition and despaired of ever scrolling to the bottom of the entry for turn as a verb. In my Compact OED print edition, I counted 34 columns devoted to turn.

What a word! Let’s look at a few of its uses of turn as a verb.

The verb turn has been in English for a thousand years. Old English tyrnan and turnian came from Latin tornāre, “to turn in a lathe.” Latin got it from a Greek word for a carpenter’s tool used to draw circles.

In modern English, the basic meaning of turn is “to cause to move around.” A wheel turns; faucets turn. Carpenters turn wood on a tool called a lathe.

Idioms used with turn can have many different meanings, both literal and figurative.

Sleepers turn over in bed. People with a decision to make turn it over in their minds. In January, many people turn over a new leaf, and in April, taxpayers turn over a portion of their earnings to the IRS.

Weary folk turn in for the night, vampires turn into bats, and informers turn against their associates and turn them in.

Lights and machinery are turned on and turned off. In historical novels, criminals are also “turned off,” i.e., hanged.

Old people turn up the heat; their children turn it down. Hotel maids turn down bedspreads, and wealthy actors turn down roles. When we think we have nowhere to turn, something always turns up and things turn out for the best.

Turn is often coupled with body parts.

Politicians turn a deaf ear, beautiful women turn heads, angry people turn their backs, a misstep causes someone to turn an ankle, bad smells turn our stomachs, and–when we die–we turn up our toes.

Readers (and people wanting a fresh start) turn the page, farmers turn the soil, resourceful heroes turn the tables on their enemies, and entrepreneurs turn a profit.

Now it’s your turn.

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5 Responses to “Expressions with Turn”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Now it is time to consider all of the meanings of the word “turn” as a noun. For example, “take your turn” does not make much sense in lots of other languages if the phrase were translated word-for-word. This implies that “take your turn” is an idiom in English.

    There are turns in the highways and roads, and airplanes make turns in the air. Ships and boats make turns in the sea.
    Wheels make turns around their axles. Sidewinder rattlesnakes make turns on the suface of the sand. Coils make turns. There is the turn of the seasons, and the planets make turns around the Sun.
    Plumbing contains turns, and electrical wiring makes turns.
    Electromagnets contain “turns” of wire wrapped around a “core” of magnetic or nonmagnetic material, and the strength of an electromagnet depends on the number of “turns” as well as the amount of electric current that passes through those turns. In other words, an electromagnet with 20 turns is five times as powerful as one that only contains four turns.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Turn, turn, turn, turn, turn! Take your turn!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Tornados make turns in several different ways.
    Whirling Dervishes make many, many turns on one spot on the floor.
    In the Warner Brothers cartoons, the Tasmanian Devil was a turning and eating fiend.
    What did the Tasmanian Devil eat? Aardvarks, antelopes,…, gnus,… sheep,… wildebeests — AND ESPECIALLY RABBITS.
    D.A.W.

  • Nelida K.

    I will add a humble couple of uses to the above very abundant lists:
    As a verb:
    But my own adventure turned out to be quite different.
    When someone you thought was a friend suddenly turns nasty.
    The special agent suspected that his colleague had been turned by a foreign intelligence service.
    As a noun:
    SBP voter turnout contrasts apathy trend.
    In computing, turnaround time is the total time taken between the submission of a program (…) and the return of the complete output to the customer/user.
    My bank is asking what I expect my annual turnover to be.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Nelinda K: You are quite correct in mentioning that “turn” occurs in quite a few compound words (both nouns, verbs, and adjectives). Also, there are some uses of “turn” as a verb that are strictly idiomatic, such as in “His colleague had been turned by a foreign intelligence service,” as you mentioned.

    As for the compound words, I can mention { turnabout, turncoat, turndown, turnover, turning point (not turnpoint), turnstile, downturn, upturn. It is interesting that turndown and downturn have completely different meanings.

    There was an episode of the orginal STAR TREK series that was titled “Turnabout Intruder”. It was the very last episode of the series to be broadcast in the United States, and that happened in June 1969 – just over a month before Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins reached the Moon (on July 20th).
    D.A.W.

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