Friday, July 31, 2009

The Turn of the Century

Lately a small but intriguing issue of close textual editing has arisen in connection with that familiar phrase “the turn of the century.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary—my first port of call when questions of this kind are lobbed over my desk by meticulous i-dotting and t-crossing sub-editors—in the huge article about turn, n., under definition number 18 c. [a.], I see that the turn of the century can be either the brief period at the beginning or at the end of the century in question, but obviously not both at the same time. Now, any attempt to fix this problem with the ingenious adjustment “turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” for example, is doomed to failure because strictly speaking this could mean c. 1898–1902 and c. 1998–2002, although only a true pedant or ambitious junior barrister would insist upon that, and “turn from the nineteenth century to the twentieth,” is simply not viable on stylistic nor indeed any other grounds. That locution drips with the condescension of language specifically drafted for the benefit of those poor souls who are congenitally slow on the uptake. Context must therefore provide the key to meaning. In other words, freestanding the phrase turn of the century is pretty useless, as in “Australian art at the turn of the twentieth century,” but when juxtaposed with an explanatory clause all is bathed in clear semantic sunshine: “Barely a generation after 1880, Australian art at the turn of the twentieth century increasingly embraced the concept of nationhood.” Here the front end of the century in question is unequivocally indicated, and the meaning is clear. However, you have to ask yourself whether in these or any other circumstances the phrase turn of the century has any point to it at all.

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