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The following meaning of turn appears to be common mainly in spy stories and, apparently, is present only in very few dictionaries.

From the OED:

(29. c.) definition of the verb turn (transitive): "To induce or persuade (a person) to act against his country, former associates, etc., esp. as a spy”

From Collins Dictionary:

(27 - transitive) to cause (an enemy agent) to become a double agent working for one's own side. - “the bureau turned some of the spies it had caught

Etymonline has nothing on the above usage so I’d like to ask:

  • Was the above connotation of turn coined by spy story writers, or was it first used by journalists in real espionage stories.

  • When does this usage date back to? Was it AmE or BrE originally?

  • Is corrupt a synonym of turn here, or do they convey different connotations? For instance, using Collins’ example, “the bureau turned some of the spies it had caught”, if I used “corrupted” in place of “turned”, would the meaning change?

  • 2
    @FumbleFingers - I don’t think there is anything trivial the way words evolve and change or add new connotations. The religious aspect appears to be less common nowadays, and if you know where Shakespeare used turn referring to spies, please let us know. – user067531 Sep 4 '18 at 13:28
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    @lbf - really? so why do most dictionaries fail to mention this ever-existing term? – user067531 Sep 4 '18 at 13:31
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    I think you're making far too much of what's barely even an "extension" of meaning. For at least 800 years it's been possible to "turn" someone, in the sense of persuading or forcing them to change allegiance, adopt a different lifestyle, etc. Do we really expect a new dictionary entry every time a general-purpose usage like that happens to be applied to a different subject with inconstant loyalty? When exactly did the worm turn? – FumbleFingers Sep 4 '18 at 13:45
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    "present in only very few dictionaries"? Really? You have it in Collins and OED, and dictionary.com (which appears to use Random House Unabridged Dictionary) has it as meaning 57. Personally I'd have guessed the usage had its roots in the word "turncoat". – AndyT Sep 4 '18 at 13:47
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    @FumbleFingers, was see a typo for set (the longest entry in the 2nd ed. of the OED)? – Peter Taylor Sep 4 '18 at 18:21
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One dictionary that has this definition is the Middle English Dictionary, so I think it's safe to say it's a little older then the OED says:

18. (a) To shift allegiance (to or against sb., someone's side, etc.);—also refl.; also, cause (sb.) to shift loyalties; transfer (one's loyalty to sb.); (b) to change spiritual allegiance, undergo a spiritual conversion; convert (to Christ, a faith, etc.);—also refl.; also, cause (sb., a group, etc.) to undergo a spiritual conversion; change the spiritual nature of (a temple); (c) to apostatize; cause (sb.) to apostatize; pervert (a mind, heart, etc.), corrupt; turnen to baddenesse; turnen oute.

The (b) sense dates back to c1175, so it probably lead to the (a) sense, which dates back to c1300.

In particular, the following quote seems to have a similar structure ("turned him"):

Wiþ Fortiger be þai nold
& turned hem al bi on acord
To Vter Pendragoun her lord;
Of Arthour & of Merlin, c1330(?a1300)


As for whether it is synonymous with "corrupt", that probably depends on which side the person is switching to. If they're switching to the enemy, then you could say it's corruption. However, if they're switching to our side, then you might say they finally see the light ;)

  • Interesting, I didn’t think it was such an ancient usage. And I see that the b) definition cites also corrupt as a synonym. – user067531 Sep 4 '18 at 15:39
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It comes as a very early verbing of a noun, in this case, the word 'turncoat'. Turncoat, in turn, came from the 1100's, in the Rotuli Chartarum where two barons changed fealty from William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke to King John. Thus they quite literally changed their coats of arms to something else. Turned the coat.

  • Can you link to the specific page where "turncoat" appears? According to the OED, "turncoat" only appeared in English in 1570, so I'm not sure this makes sense. I think the Rotuli Chartarum is in Latin. – Laurel Sep 4 '18 at 15:21
  • Yes, plus turncoat meaning “change principles or party" suggests more a voluntary action made for personal reasons, rather than something that was the result of being “persuaded” by a third party. – user067531 Sep 4 '18 at 15:26

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