Turning the tables (expression)

Turning the Table is a figurative phrase from around the early 1600s. It means to reverse a situation and gain the upper hand. Board games such as backgammon were known as “table” games, so the practice of turning the table was switching the opponent’s position to your favor.

While growing up with a large family, when dinner was ready we grabbed a plate and parked ourselves in any available seat that was open and commenced devouring whatever was served to us. We never had assigned seating, and we were grateful for the food. I was lucky as a child that all the adults in my family knew how to cook, so we ate well. With the exception of the occasional tuna casserole and liver with onions, I loved dinner time. The first Thanksgiving I was with the father of my two sons, I was told that he would be sitting at the head of the table and when I asked him where I was to sit he replied “the foot.” NOT the smartest thing to say to this redhead! As I was doing research on this phrase, I found out that if you are to have proper seating at a dining room table—the woman sits at the head of the table, not the man. This is so that she can serve her guests and fetch things quickly from the cooking area if need be.

I am mostly a numbers person by nature, so when I am trudging through the labyrinth of the English language and happen to come to a dead end, I pick up a dictionary (road map) and challenge myself. I have found that quite a few of the words and sayings I have been using in my vocabulary really mean something quite different. For instance, I have assumed that ‘turning the table’ meant that a situation in your life which was not amicable has been turned in your favor or rearranging your dining room when you are bored. Well…yes and no, depending on whose table you are sitting, who is on the guest list and what is being served for dinner.

1) Dining with someone who feeds you liver and onions, store purchased macaroni salad and temped water in a plastic cup, while glaring at you over your TV tray: this is the person who will turn the table while you are not looking to better themselves.

The first know example of the phrase ‘turn the table’ in print is from Robert Sanderson’s XII Sermons in 1634: “Whosoever thou art that dost another wrong, do but turn the tables: imagine thy neighbour were now playing thy game, and thou his.”

2) Dining with someone who feeds you pizza with your favorite soft drink while rounding up children and texting their husband that dinner is ready: too often we are so busy during the day that when we drag ourselves from the car into the house all we want is dinner and a good conversation with the family around the table. That is sometimes hard to do when you have a big family who like to talk, all at once, really loud and the conversations consist of junior high drama, football, and car parts. In the 1920s, someone came up with a solution to this chaotic conundrum by having appointed conversations that have start and end times with assigned partners. Emily Post put it best:

“The turning of the table is accomplished by the hostess, who merely turns from the gentleman (on her left probably) with whom she has been talking through the soup and the fish course, to the one on her right. As she turns, the lady to whom the ‘right’ gentleman has been talking, turns to the gentleman further on, and in a moment everyone at table is talking to a new neighbor.

3) Dinning with someone who feeds you southern fried Ayam Cemanis, with white-truffle risotto and a nice bottle of Ruwa while giving you a kiss on the cheek: this version is a little more obscure and was in practice centuries before Emily Post’s description. If you lived in the medieval time period and you were a low income household, your dining room table would look like something a present-day man would have in his garage or shop for working on “man projects,” with one exception: if you flipped the table top over, you would find a beautifully polished top that rivaled what we most likely have in our homes today.

It was common practice that the rough-cut side of the table top was used for everyday family use and when you had a guest coming that was worthy enough, the table top would be flipped over so that person would feel like royalty.