Tuesday, October 10, 2006


It is fairly well recognized that 1900-01 and 2000-01 represent marks of "the turn of the century." But which century?

Was 1900-01 the 'turn' of the ninetheenth century or twentieth? I had always assumed the former. I thought, based on observations from texts and my own sense of logic, that when centuries turned they finished - as in 'turned over' or 'turned out.' So, when one said "at the turn of the nineteenth century," it was the end of the nineteenth century one was referring to.

However, recently I was reading a review in the Canadian Historical Review, the subject of which was a book on Canadian-American-British relations around 1890-1910. In this review the author continualy referred to the book's subject matter as taking place at "the turn of the twentieth century," meaning, of course, 1900 not 2000.

Is there a standard reference for the phrase "turn of the century?" It was easy in the latter years of the twentieth century to use the phrase and be fairly clear. Now however, I'm not as sure. Is it possible that "turn of the century" was a phrase coined during the nineteenth century, and so the issue has never seriously come up?

I believe that the phrase is much more common in speech rather than in formal writing and so would be subject to much more variable definition. But now having seen it in print in an academic journal I want a standard.

Which way do centuries turn? I'll look into it. In the meantime - opinions?

Update: The next afternoon -

Obviously, the source to answer this question is the Oxford English Dictionary.

Conclusion: There is no definitive standard for use of the phrase "turn of the century." Although certain uses seem more common and appropriate than others.

The OED notes the first use of the phrase in 1926 to O. Barfield in History in English Words quote: "Just before the turn of the century there burst..upon England that strange explosion..the Romantic Movement."

Here, given the time of writing, the phrase indicates the preriod ending the 19th century and beginning the 20th, withouth requiring further specification. This appears to be the most common way in which the phrase has been historically used. Futher examples:

1935 - Discovery, Oct. 3, 10/2, "It is interesting to compare Dr Burr's notes, dating back to the turn of the century, with present conditions."

1981 - W. Haggard Money Men xi. 122, "What was still called the parlour..was vintage turn of the century."

However, the term has also be used to describe the "turn" of any century, provided it is clear which centuries are under consideration:

1968 - A. M. Farrer, Interpretation & Belief, 190, "It was as a doctrine of free will that Neo-Platonism was embraced by St Augustine at the turn of the fourth to the fifth century."

1976 - Church Times, 9 July, 6/2, "He begins with a splendid assembly of Church of England men all earnestly proclaiming, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, doctrines then trendy."

But, just to confuse things, the OED documents a usage of the problematic type that got me onto this topic in the first place:

1979 - Scientific American Dec. 96/1, "The evolutionary significance of the original Neanderthal discovery and of other human remains uncovered at Paleolithic sites was not apparent until the turn of the 20th century."

In this case, as with the CHR case I note above, the author refers to "the turn of the 20th century" and means the beginning of the twentieth not the end.

It would appear that the phrase "turn of the century" generally refers to the period circa. 1890-1910. In most cases this usage would be clear. In other cases, when not referring to the immediately preceding century, authors should specify which centuries are beginning and ending under their consideration. Finally, there seems to be limited, and therefor problematic use, of the phrase "turn of the x-century" to indicate the beginning of a particular century and not the end.

I encourage you all to employ the first two types of usage and to avoid the latter.

Posted by Matthew @ 9:11 PM

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Very interesting - for what it's worth, I'd always assumed the opposite - that a century turned when it began. I can't justify this logically, but I always understood the turn of the twentieth century to be the period bracketing 1900, and so on. I think you're right that this sort of thing is to be avoided, though.

Posted by Blogger Mader @ October 13, 2006 12:27 AM #
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