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If I wanted to write about 1899, would I call it the turn of the 19th century or the turn of the 20th century? Basically: does 'turn of the century' refer to the beginning or end of a century?

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    It refers to the transition from one century to another, just as turn of the page refers to the transition from one page to another. In the turn of the xth century, the xth century could be the old one or the new one, but for my money it is more likely to be the old one in British English, despite the Wikipedia entry cited below. – user339660 May 18 '19 at 9:21
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    I suspect it was a term coined sometime during the 20th century to mean the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. As someone born mid-twentieth, it seems always to have been around. However now we are well into the twenty-first century an element of confusion has arisen. Often the meaning can be picked up from context e.g. "my son was born around the turn of the century" would be unlikely to mean born around 1900! Where it is not evident from context, it is important to add clarification. – WS2 May 18 '19 at 11:52
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    Generally the term would not be used unless there was a contextual clue as to WHICH century. The specific century is rarely specified in the same phrase as the idiom. – Hot Licks May 18 '19 at 12:18
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    (Understand that the term is used mainly for activities spanning the transition, so some part of the activity occurred in, eg, the 19th and some in the 20th. It makes no sense to explicitly specify only one century.) – Hot Licks May 18 '19 at 12:20
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    @SConroy Good to now it's not just me. You're still calling us 'Bristish' though... – user339660 May 18 '19 at 17:38
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It depends.

In British English, according to Wikipedia, you would call it the turn of the 20th century. The turn of the 20th century includes the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

In American English it can be as above, but it could also be referred to as the turn of the 19th century, i.e. viewing it as the century turning from the 19th century rather than as turning to(wards) the 20th.

See Wikipedia

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    This answer, very cautiously, says that the phrase is unambiguous in British English 'according to Wikipedia'. It would be interesting to see if there is any evidence other than Wikipedia that an average speaker of British English indeed perceives the phrase as unambiguous. The evidence of how people understand the phrase itself, may not be easy to obtain, because its real-life use almost always provides some disambiguating context. – jsw29 May 18 '19 at 18:00
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    The turn of the century can refer to any century at all. I mean.... – Lambie May 18 '19 at 18:02
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    Not exactly an empirical survey but this use at the BBC website and this one from Encyclopedia Britannica (search 'turn of' in the article) supports Wikipedia's statement on UK usage. I suppose a really good answer would include a look at google ngrams for UK literature as opposed to US literature and would include the researcher examining each individual use for the actual context. – S Conroy May 18 '19 at 20:11
  • Those of us born in the middle of the 20th century learned two phrases from our (predominently 20th century) parents. These were: "The turn of the century" which was, roughly, the period ftom 1890 to 1910 and "The turn of the last century" which was, roughly, the period from 1790 to 1810. Updating those means that "The turn of the century" becomes the period from 1990 to 2010 and "The turn of the last century" becomes 1890 to 1910. This usage suggests to me that "The turn of the nth century" refers to the end of the n-1th century and the beginning of nth. – BoldBen May 19 '19 at 0:09
  • Does anyone doubt that n-th century is the same in British and American English? Therefore, how could turn of the n-th century differ? Also, we have turn of the page, turn(ing) of the corner, and turn of the screw (which is not only a book but a different case). – Lambie May 19 '19 at 17:02
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Both

The turn of a new century refers to the end and beginning of the new century. For your example (1899), it would signal the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

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    So is 1899 at the turn of the nineteenth century, or the turn of the twentieth century? Or are you saying you could use either expression and still be right? – Andrew Leach May 18 '19 at 9:28
  • @AndrewLeach The turn of the century signifies the end of one and the beginning of another. You would generally just say "It's the turn of the century." However, if you are being specific, you would probably mean it to say the beginning of a new century. – Voldemort's Wrath May 18 '19 at 13:46
  • Readers and writers have to already know which century it is. It can be any century. Even 999 to 1000. For instance. – Lambie May 18 '19 at 18:04
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    @AndrewLeach, in the UK I have rarely if ever heard the phrase used to specify which two centuries are being turned between - it is usually used unqualified, with the century in question being implicit from context. If someone said "at the turn of the 20th century", I would interpret that to mean 1900 (or around 1900), but again context would likely be key. I would consider it confusing and wrong to hear 2000 described as "the turn of the 20th century. – Steve May 19 '19 at 17:17
  • @Steve Exactly the point of my questioning comment. – Andrew Leach May 19 '19 at 17:32
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Generally speaking, the turn of the century refers to any century where the turn is occurring.

Context will tell which century it is.

Imagine, people in the year 999 experienced the turn of their century as being from the year 999 to the year 1000. The actual turn is ineffable.

Basically, it refers to the point where one century becomes another. Just like: the turning the corner: you go from one street to another.

When I turned the corner, I realized I was in Harley Street.

Here's Wikipedia, see the first part only for my answer:

turn of the century

For me, the turn means the moment it changes INTO the century that follows. And I just do not agree with Chicago Manual of Style, insofar as "n-th century" means the same in BrE and AmE. I mean specifically that n-th century means the same in both,ergo, the turn must then refer to the one you arrive at after the turn. I do not believe there is any discrepancy in BrE and AmE for 19th century or 20th century.

[correction made: "insofar as the turn of the n-th century" was a mistake]

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