What Does "Turning of the Tide" Mean?

wiseGEEK Writer

Turning of the tide is a common phrase that references the way the tides are low and high, and the lack of control people have over the tides. When a tide turns, it goes in an opposite direction. The phrase has been used for centuries in variations. Noted examples include Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I where Shakespeare uses “turn the tide” as a variant.

In "Henry IV", Shakespeare uses the line, "an apprehension/may turn the tide of fearful faction."
In "Henry IV", Shakespeare uses the line, "an apprehension/may turn the tide of fearful faction."

Sometimes the phrase is used a little bit incorrectly to discuss turning back the tide, which would mean a futile exercise. You can’t turn the tide back since it is out of human control; it will turn as a matter of course at its appropriate time. However unlike true ocean tides, some events or major changes do hinge on circumstances. In Shakespeare’s example, “an apprehension/ may turn the tide of fearful faction.” In other words, fear or concern could prompt a major change in the world of Henry IV.

Most often the turning of the tide is used as a metaphor to express a change in direction as relates to human thought or behavior. Often this thought or behavior is almost completely reversed from previous thought, or could be a direct opposite. There are many examples of turning of the tide in relationship to human events. One that most people will not soon forget is the crash of the stock markets in September 2008.

For many years, many politicians had supported increasing deregulation of trading practices in the US. This was thought helpful because it encouraged business and at first it appeared tremendously profitable for many. However, elimination of some regulations regarding trading allowed for some speculators to take advantage of the system or “game it.” Ultimately lack of regulation in many aspects of trading combined with poor lending practices produced the September stock market crash.

Interestingly, politicians of both parties suddenly supported greater regulatory power over trading in the US. This is a turning of the tide in regard to previous thought, since it is in direct opposition to positions taken before the crash. Another example of turning of the tide on large scale was the ultimate end of apartheid in South Africa. After years of policies that directly discriminated against black South Africans, pressure exerted by other countries, change in opinion by some people in government and continued resistance by black South Africans ultimately turned the tide on the disgraceful politics of South Africa’s past.

With this idiom, there’s suggestion that human thought and behavior may occur in a wavelike pattern. In the book of Ecclesiastes, it is noted, “To everything there is a season." Perhaps humans, especially on a large scale or within societies are meant to occasionally change directions, just as does the tide.

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Discussion Comments


You'll find this quite a bit in football -- when one team can do no wrong, it can be described as having "turned the tide" in a game. Most sportscasters these days, however, seem to go on about shifting momentum. It's all the same thing, though.

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