You turning?

Posted by on November 14, 2011

Last week’s favourite entry on the Open Dictionary, reverse ferret, is a colourful way of talking about a complete change of policy, a change that is all the more startling because the person or organisation who changes their mind was so strongly in favour of the original policy.

There are other ways of describing such a change: an about-turn (also about-face), a volte-face (borrowed from French), or a U-turn.

When politicians do a U-turn, they are often taken to task in the press. It’s seen as being indecisive. In 1980, when Margaret Thatcher (now Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven) was prime minister, she gave a speech at her party conference at a time when a number of her own MPs were beginning to change their minds about certain policies. Despite being renowned for having little or no sense of humour, Mrs Thatcher’s comment on the situation was surprisingly droll.

“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to” she said, making a pun, as U-turn and You turn sound exactly the same in speech.

She then went on to say “The lady’s not for turning”. This flummoxed a number of people, but is a reference to a 1948 play by Christopher Fry called The Lady’s not for Burning. It is believed that Mrs Thatcher herself was unaware of the reference, but its presence in her speech is explained by the fact that her speechwriter (you didn’t think politicians wrote their own gags, did you?) was Ronald Millar, himself a well-known playwright.

(For those of you who are keen, you can see a clip of the quip here; for those of you who are especially keen, the whole text of the speech can be found here. Just don’t expect any more jokes.)

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