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Does the phrase "the turn of the nineteenth century" mean around 1800 or 1900? Wikipedia reports that in British English it means 1800, while in AmE usage is not so clear. So what does “turn of the 19th century” refer to exactly. Does it depend mainly on context?

In British English the phrase the 'turn of the nineteenth century' refers to the years immediately preceding and immediately following 1801, the 'turn of the twentieth century' to the years surrounding 1901, and so on.

In American English it is not so clear cut. According to the Chicago Manual of Style online Q&A, there is no common agreement as to the meaning of the phrase "turn of the n-th century."

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The fact that the Chicago style manual has no clear definition reflects, I think, the fact that this is a fundamentally confusing term, due to a confluence of two sources of confusion:

"turn of the century" - does this happen at the end or the start?

"19th century" - is this 1800 to 1899, or 1900 to 1999?

Now, you and I could agree a clear answer to either of these questions (the second is less open to debate), but regardless, many other people will think the other way. It doesn't really matter whether we're right or wrong, if the aim is to create a clear communication, which after all is the primary function of language, whether spoken or written. Context will always help - if you're talking about something that happened in 1803 (eg the start of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe), and you say "diplomatic relations at the turn of the 19th century were at a low point" then people would guess what you mean.

So, I think that, if pushed to provide an answer, the Chicago Style manual would probably side with Wikipedia - that "The turn of the 19th century" means, say, 1795 to 1805. But it will still be a confusing choice of words to many.

  • The 19th century is certainly 1800-1899; I would have thought there was no doubt about that. – Kate Bunting Feb 12 '18 at 9:39
  • @KateBunting There is certainly doubt within the minds of some people, regardless of what the dictionary says, or what you and I think, and that's the point I was making. – Max Williams Feb 12 '18 at 10:19
  • In fact, I don't know if the phrase "the turn of the nineteenth century" means that it is the nineteenth century that ends and twentieth century begins or that it is the eighteenth century that ends and the nineteenth century begins. Can anybody tell me clearly which of the above variants is correct? – Alina Feb 12 '18 at 11:02
  • @KateBunting Very true, however the question is, when one is speaking of the turn of a past century, do we identify it by the one which is ending or the one which is beginning? It should be easy in French as 'fin de siècle' means the end of the old one but there is some ambiguity in English. At the moment "the turn of the century" means, roughly, 1995 to 2005 and "the turn of the last century" means, roughly, 1895 to1905 but I was never quite sure what any given person meant by "the turn of the last century" from the 1960s onward. I prefer "the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries" myself. – BoldBen Feb 12 '18 at 11:05
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    Yes, I know that is the question being discussed; I was referring to Max's second 'source of confusion'. – Kate Bunting Feb 13 '18 at 9:31
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An excerpt about Freud's works around 1895:

To fathom Freud’s near-obsession with the sexual foundations of emotional distress is also to come to a fuller awareness of the sexual repression and hypocrisy in the lives of the Austrian middle class at the turn of the... [nineteenth] century....

--> at the turn of the 19th century in this excerpt means around the end of 19th century.

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    You seem to have inserted the word nineteenth yourself... which means it's your opinion and the quote is irrelevant. – AndyT Oct 3 at 9:56
  • Inserted by authors in a textbook (1) which quote from another textbook (2). Given the context (Freud's works around 1895) I think that's what it means. (1) Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice: Skills, Strategies, and Techniques. You can find the exceprt here: johnsommersflanagan.com/2016/07/15/… (2) Talking Cures: A History of Western and Eastern Psychotherapies by C. Peter Bankart, 1997 – Nguyen Hoang Oct 6 at 2:37

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