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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

turn the page

(1990’s | athletese?, therapese? | “put it behind you,” “get on with your life,” “set it aside,” “let it go”)

This phrase seems to have acquired its present imputation in the 1990’s. Before then, it appeared rarely as a metaphor; I couldn’t discern any clear pattern of origin or use in LexisNexis. The first use I found, if you don’t count Bob Seger’s song from 1976, came from a 1979 book about the Canadian labor movement. The Dead used it in a song called “Throwing Stones” in 1987. It didn’t start to turn up in quantity until the mid-1990’s, and it was well-established by 2000. It may have slipped in from British (or Canadian) English, since some early sightings come from those proud nations, but I’m not sure. It seemed to turn up a bit more often in sports journalism in the nineties, but not enough to prove it originated there (could it have been a reference to a football team’s playbook?). Occasionally you see “turn the calendar page,” which may be the origin. The old expression, “turn over a new leaf,” is either an obvious ancestor or irrelevant, but I’m not sure which.

It’s not always easy to tell that some of these early instances are authentic examples of the way we use the phrase today, because “turn the page” already meant something similar back then: ignore it and keep going. The definitive example is probably Save the Children’s slogan from the 1970’s, which went something like “you can help this child or you can turn the page.” (Cf. “reach out,” another example of an ad campaign influencing vocabulary.) Now that was quite literal, because these were print ads; “turn the page” meant “skip this heartrending appeal and show your indifference.”

That negative connotation has mostly disappeared. Now we’re much more likely to use the phrase to express resignation, or even muted triumph. We use it to talk about an event, a relationship, a time in one’s life, etc. that one needs to forget or just stop dwelling on. “Turning the page” doesn’t mean running away from something that you need to deal with; it means setting aside something you need to be rid of. There’s more than a whiff of “can we forget this ever happened?”

A new phrase has sprung from this modern usage: “turn the page on,” used when it is necessary or desirable to specify what exactly we are putting behind us. A recent Associated Press headline offers an example: “Romney Strives to Turn the Page on Rough Week.” But another example shows how these things mutate and spread: the actual line from Romney’s acceptance speech, “the time has come to turn the page,” is regularly rendered in news accounts as “turn the page on Obama.” (His echo of Obama’s use of the phrase, also sans preposition, to describe pulling troops out of Iraq was no doubt deliberate — speechwriters are paid to notice such things.) And from the world of sports, a San Francisco Examiner headline: “Giants should turn the page on [disgraced baseball star] Melky Cabrera.” Any of these would make sense and be perfectly grammatical without the prepositional phrase, but sometimes you need to be specific.

An acknowledgment through the ether to beautiful Liz from Queens, who proposed this term many moons ago. It took a while, but I got there.

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