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The meaning and origin of the expression: Turn of phrase

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Turn of phrase


A distinctive spoken or written expression.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Turn of phrase'?

'Turn of phrase' is a commonplace but rather odd expression - in what sense can a phrase be 'turned'? Ladies are, or at least used to be, sometimes described as having 'well-turned' legs/thighs/ankles, but that derives from an allusion to the symmetry and precision of wood turning, which hardly seems appropriate for an abstract entity like a phrase.

What's a phrase?

What is a phrase anyway? Well, there's no exact definition and so it depends on who you ask. Had you been around in 1530 when the word 'phrase' was coined, you would have been wise not to have asked the language scholar John Palsgrave. It was he who first put the word into print but, confusingly, gave two differing examples of its meaning. Palsgrave's aim was to help Englishmen to learn to speak French and to that end he published Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse, the first grammar of the French language.

Palsgrave illustrated the meaning of the word 'phrase' by giving examples of phrases in English with their French equivalents.

"Whan all is doone and sayd, pour tout potaige - a phrasis."

In that illustration he was using the meaning of the word as we now understand it, that is, 'a small group or collocation of words expressing a single notion; a common or idiomatic expression'. That 'collection of words' definition of 'phrase' is hardly unambiguous and could just as well be used for 'idiom', 'saying' or 'expression'. There are also many other linguistic terms that, while they have specialised uses, can all lay claim to being phrases - 'proverbs', 'adages', 'maxims', 'clichés' and so on. Added to that, Palsgrave gave us an entirely different definition of what Tudor gentry understood by the word 'phrase', that is, not words at all but a 'manner or style of speech or writing'. In the same French/English grammar he remarked on "The differences of phrasys betwene our tong and the frenche tong". He went on to explain "The phrasys of our tong and theyrs differeth". By that he meant, not that the English and French use different expressions (which even the most untutored student would surely have known) but that the French have a different manner and style of speaking to the English.

How can a phrase be 'turned'?

Turn of phraseThat 'style of speaking or writing' meaning gives us a lead in explaining how a phrase can be said to be 'turned'. Before the advent of printing the beauty of written texts was judged not only on their content but also on the quality of the writer's calligraphy - much as Japanese Haiku is appreciated today. The word 'style' derives from the tool used for writing, the stylus, and to the medieval mind writing style was as much about the craft of calligraphy as it was about the ideas conveyed in the text. An early handwritten example of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, circa 1386, used 'style' with that meaning:

Therfore Petrak writeth this storie, which with heigh stile he enditeth.

So, a phrase was a style of speaking or writing, and style meant beauty of expression. We can now interpret a fine 'turn of phrase' as analogous to a skilfully crafted piece of wood turned on a lathe. John Dryden referred to the 'turning' of words in this sense in The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 1693:

Had I time, I cou'd enlarge on the Beautiful Turns of Words and Thoughts; which are as requisite in this, as in Heroique Poetry.

Benjamin Franklin - first with many things - appears to have been the first to use the precise expression 'turn of phrase' in his Letters, 1779:

A new version [of the Bible], in which, preserving the sense, the turn of phrase and manner of expression should be modern.

See also: Coin a phrase.