Why do we say that someone “turned round” (or turned around) and said something? It’s one of those expressions people seem to find deeply irritating, and the standard response to what is perceived as “sloppy” English is to imagine it is nothing more than a meaningless filler. I tend to take the opposite view: language isn’t usually random, and most of the things we say or write arose for perfectly good reasons… though, once in the language, they sometimes take on their own momentum.
First let’s see how this expression works. A trawl through Macmillan’s language database shows that in most cases it’s used with a “speech act” verb – say is by far the most common, but there’s also a nice set of words like criticize, condemn, blame, attack, and accuse:
Then they have the bare-faced cheek to turn round and accuse us of falling for the populist headlines!
I told this woman I worked with about it, and she turned round and called me a murderer!
But I think the clue to how this usage developed may be lurking in sentences like these:
For me to turn round and suddenly become a nationalist would be very odd.
It will take time for the committee, some of whose members have been urging rate rises, to turn round and vote for reductions.
I don’t think it’s going to be resolved because the Church can’t suddenly turn round and say that what we’re been teaching for years is wrong.
What’s happening here is that someone changes their mind, and this change in their ideological “position” is reflected in a literal change of position. (This is a common metaphor in English and other languages.) And after all, the related noun (turnaround) also means a change in one’s opinions (or one’s fortunes).
But, as many of the examples above suggest, the changes tend to be extreme – from one position to a completely opposite one, a volte face if you like (the same metaphor). And we can see in some of the other words here (suddenly, the cheek), and in the general tone of indignation, that changing your mind so dramatically is seen as unreasonable. These two ideas are nicely captured here:
The bank saw that my business was in trouble and called in my loan. But when I arrived to pay it off, the manager turned round and said ‘Oh if you can pay, there’s no need to’.
So the phrase comes to express a sense of surprise and outrage – then starts being used even in cases where there’s no actual “change of position”. However, there is still an idea of “turn taking”: someone says or does something, and someone else responds, in turn:
What is the point of having a Royal Commission fully investigate this matter if you are then going to turn round and ignore its recommendations?
It beggars belief that there are those who are afforded sanctuary by a benign nation can then turn round and denigrate the country and its citizens.
If students are given responsibility, they can’t just turn around and blame the teacher!
So the message to those who see this phrase as further evidence of the collapse of civilization is that – like most things in language – “turned round and said” is quite logical. It can be a useful way of conflating the ideas of a change of mind by one person which seems perverse (and possibly unfair) to someone else.Email this Post