The Grammarphobia Blog

Turning the tables

Q: What do you think is the origin of the expression “turn the tables”? Does it have anything to do with a table supposedly moving around at a séance?

A: No, the verb phrase “turn the tables” has nothing to do with séances. It originated with the playing of board games in the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It means “to reverse one’s position relative to someone else,” the OED says, especially “by turning a position of disadvantage into one of advantage; to cause a complete reversal of the state of affairs.”

In its literal meaning, the phrase referred “to the position of the board in a board game being reversed, hence reversing the situation of each player in the game,” Oxford adds. But apparently it was used figuratively from the very beginning.

The expression first appeared in writing, the OED says, in The Widdowes Teares, a 1612 comedy by the poet and playwright George Chapman: “You doe well Sir to take your pleasure of me, (I may turne tables with you ere long).”

It showed up a few decades later in a sermon delivered by Bishop Robert Sanderson in 1648: “Whosoever thou art that dost another wrong, do but turn the tables: imagine thy neighbour were now playing thy game, and thou his.”

This more contemporary example is from Cynthia Freeland’s But Is It Art? (2001): “The images … celebrate the female artist’s ability to turn the tables on the men.”

Imagine that!

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