I was asked about the phrase ‘turning tables’. You might know this phrase from the Adele song of the same name, which is, as in quite a few Adele songs, about things that can go wrong in love.

So what do tables have to do with love?

The meaning of the phrase ‘turning tables’ is to change a situation so you gain an advantage over someone, where you used to be at a disadvantage. You could also talk about ‘gaining the upper hand’. So, Adele is singing about her partner always trying to get control in their relationship and that she is determined to leave him.

The origin of the phrase ‘turning tables’ was playing board games, like backgammon. At that time (seventeenth century), the board would be reversed, so you would then be playing from your opponent’s position.

The phrase was first mentioned in 1634 by Robert Sanderson in his XII Sermons:

“Whosoever thou art that dost another wrong, so but turn the tables: imagine thy neighbour were now playing thy game and thou his.”   

Whosoever thou art – whoever you are

Dost – we would use does here in modern English

Thy – your

“Whoever you are, if you are doing someone wrong, change things round: imagine your neighbour is now playing your game and you his (or hers).”


The song might sound different now you understand this phrase. This link takes you to a film with added lyrics.

Video with lyrics:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9ph-X0WvRI


Have a question about English? Let me know!