language change and slang

Revolving speakers: “So she turned round and said…”

www.wordle.netWhy 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.

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Michael Rundell


  • Nice post! This reminds me of an argument that Guy Deutscher makes about all language beginning as literal, then transferring to more abstract meanings via metaphor.

    Turn around just seems like another one to add to the list.

    Oh, and I’d really recommend Deutscher’s book The Unfolding of Language


    it’s from the days of the black death – people would face away from eachother so that they wouldn’t catch it usually they were back to back. if there was a really juicy bit of gossip it might cause the person imparting said gossip to ‘turn around and say’ in other words they wanted to see the look on the receivers face when they delivered the bit of gossip.
    dearie me… it was on Horrible Histories so even my 8 year old knows that!

  • Thanks to The Girl for this alternative explanation, which i confess I had never heard of. It’d be interesting to know where the Horrible Histories author got his information from, as there are an awful lot of myths surrounding the Black Death. I was using current language data (which I think speaks for itself) but my colleague Liz Potter has had a look at the OED, to see if there’s anything in the historical language data to support the Horrible Histories version. The nearest evidence the OED has for ‘turned round and said’ dates back only as far as 1891: ‘[They] cannot turn round on the executors and blame them’ – clearly the same meaning discussed in this post, and also cross-referred to the OED’s sense 33, which is about people changing their attitude or allegiance, and attacking someone they formerly supported (as in ‘she turned on all her friends’). So there’s a pretty clear set of meanings here about ‘changing your position’. But maybe there is some counter-evidence we’re not aware of?

  • so many people use it incorrectly and now it is just annoying
    it devalues what the person is saying because it demonstrates they are not in control of their communication – i.e. talking impulsively
    i think it is intended to convey increased impact but i just sigh inside, reduce my interest and visualise someone doing a meaningless pirouette before they speak

  • Yes it is the Black Death origin. It was passed on via people’s breath so people turned around before talking to each other.

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