What does the term “turn turk” mean and how did it originate?

By: | Post date: 2017-06-18 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: English, Linguistics

‘Turn turk’ in the Renaissance meant to convert to Islam. The Turks were the Muslims that the English had the most contact with, through the Ottoman Empire.

A Christian Turn’d Turk (1612) is a play by the English dramatist Robert Daborne. It concerns the conversion of the pirate John Ward to Islam.

Because of the entrenched association of peoples until recent times with religion, changing religion was broadly regarded as betraying one’s core principles, and being literally faithless, renegade. It is so used, metaphorically, in Shakespeare:

  • [Hamlet, Hamlet to Horatio] if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me (if my fortune betrays me)
  • [Much Ado About Nothing, Margaret to Beatrice] an you be not turned Turk, there’s no more sailing by the star. (Margaret alludes to the fact that Beatrice has fallen in love with Benedick, despite her protestations: as complete a change as someone converting to Islam)

Hence, surprisingly enough, an accurate definition in, of all places, Urban Dictionary: to turn turk:

To turn turk is to be a twat and back stab people

Bad that lad didn’t expect him to turn turk on you

Chambers’ Twentieth Century Dictionary adds: “to go to the bad: to become hopelessly obstinate”. The value judgement of Islam = bad is what you’d expect from a majority Christian culture; the obstinacy is surprising, unless it is the generic obstinacy of a renegade.

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