What does the phrase “to turn the tables” mean and Where does it come from?

Metaphorically speaking, we turn the tables upon another fellow when we put him in the predicament that we have been occupying, or into a similar one.

There is no connection with “turning the other cheek.” The saying arose during the early 1600s, some three centuries ago, and seems to have been applied to some popular card game in which a player, when at a disadvantage, might reverse the position of the board and thus shift the disadvantage to his adversary.

Or possibly the original sense of the expression was the same as we now indicate by “duplicate,” as in duplicate bridge, that after a series of hands of cards had been played, the table was turned and the same series of hands was replayed, each player holding the hand previously held by an opponent.

Brewer has an interesting theory that the expression is derived from an ancient Roman masculine fad of purchasing costly tables. After such a purchase, the matron of the house, chided for a purchase of her own, was alleged to “turn the tables” by reminding her spouse of his extravagance.

Marital customs of Roman days were not unlike the present, so it is not unlikely that the matrons did thus defend themselves, but evidence is lacking that our metaphor had such an origin.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

Leave a Comment