Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I know the meaning of the phrase, but where exactly does it come from?

share|improve this question
3  
I found this online, which clarifies even further: Games like backgammon are known as 'tables' games. The phrase 'turn the tables' derives from these games and from the practise of reversing the board so that players play from their opponent's previous position. The first known example of the figurative use of the phrase in print is in Robert Sanderson's XII sermons, 1634: "Whosoever thou art that dost another wrong, do but turn the tables: imagine thy neighbour were now playing thy game, and thou his." –  thesunneversets Nov 19 '10 at 17:16

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Etymonline to the rescue:

Figurative phrase turn the tables (1630s) is from backgammon (in O.E. and M.E. the game was called tables).

share|improve this answer
    
Cool, thanks a bunch, that makes a lot of sense. –  Ted Ballou Nov 19 '10 at 14:49
    
Aha, this explains why it's always "tables" in the plural (the question heading has it wrong). –  Rupe May 29 at 10:53

I have also come across the usage to refer to the custom, at formal dinner parties of the Regency period for instance, that the entire table would 'turn' to their dinner partner on the opposite side as the courses changed. It was a formal way of ensuring broad coversation.

share|improve this answer
    
Sorry but this social custom has nothing to do with the question. –  user24964 May 29 at 8:22

Jesus turned the tables over (John chapter 2), and in doing so, was probably making a rather strong point that Jewish elements such as the temple were being given new meaning and/or being replaced in His system. It would seem that this incident probably led, at least in part, to the English phrase.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.