The Grammarphobia Blog

Turn of the century

Q: As the millennium approached, I wondered when people would realize that the term “turn of the century” was ambiguous. Well, 1-1-2000 came and went and the term has persisted, even in books that people may be reading years after publication. I believe I have seen it as late as 2005, still clearly intended to refer to circa 1900. Isn’t it time to turn the page on this expression?

A: For whatever reason, “turn of the century,” like “fin de siècle,” has generally stuck to one historical period and is very rarely applied to our own new century. I occasionally see “turn of the 21st century,” but it’s obviously an awkward allusion to the REAL turn of the century.

Dictionaries define “fin de siècle” as the last years of the 19th century, but I can’t find a definition for “turn of the century” in the two references I consult the most, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as “the beginning or end of the century under consideration,” suggesting that it could be applied to any century, but the online version of the OED doesn’t have any post-millennium citations for this usage.

So what does “turn of the century” refer to now? Unless it’s modified (as in “turn of the 21st century”), I think it’s still assumed to mean the period around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Like “fin de siècle,” it’s idiomatic – at least for the time being.

One of the few exceptions I’ve found is a website, turn-of-the-century.com, run by two people devoted to the fine old craft of … woodturning.

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