Famous Sayings #122 — ‘Turn Over a New Leaf’

September 16, 2018

Timmy said that he was going to turn over a new leaf. For much of his career at school, he has been a slacker, but for the past few weeks, he has been doing his homework and studying more. So far, I see a sharp improvement in his grades.

turn over a new leaf, famous sayings, autumnal equinox, vernal equinox
You might think that the phrase “turn over a new leaf” has something to do with changing seasons. It does not, but autumn or spring starts on September 22, depending on the hemisphere where you live.

The phrase “turn over a new leaf” is a phrase I have heard for years, but it’s one I have never really used myself. Sure, the meaning is clear, but I have never really been one to make resolutions — especially since they are easily broken.

Anyway, “turn over a new leaf” is quite an interesting phrase to look at. Even though it is relatively easy to decipher the meaning of it, I learned more about the figurative sense of the phrase and its origin.

I had chosen this phrase ahead of time because of the change in seasons. On Saturday, autumn will be upon us — for those of us in the Northern hemisphere (). Those who live in the Southern Hemisphere will get to enjoy the vernal equinox and, in a sense, “turn over a new leaf,” but the saying in question has nothing to do with spring.

What Does It Mean to ‘Turn Over a New Leaf’?

In short, the phrase “turn over a new leaf” means that someone is making a new start and making a change in their behavior. The goal is for that person to become a better version of themselves.


The phrase can be applied to these types of situations:

  • When someone makes a New Year’s resolution, they will list one thing they’d like to change about themselves. (Of course, people often break these resolutions, so they have little meaning. People can make a change at any time of the year, especially when immediate action is needed, so there is no need to wait until the end of the year to make such a resolution.)
  • Someone may decide to “turn a new leaf” in order to improve their interpersonal relationships. Specifically, a man might want to improve the way he treats his friends and family by communicating more, giving out more compliments, and genuinely being more supportive.
  • Professionally speaking, an employer might decide to improve the way he deals with his employees to foster a better work environment and get more production from the workers. An employee might decide to take their work more seriously to build a résumé or to receive a promotion and a raise.
  • A student might decide to “turn a new leaf” to behave in class, improve his grades, and foster a better relationship with his teacher(s) and other students.
  • A city might “turn a new leaf” by radically changing its policies. For instance, when the voters choose a new district attorney, the goal might be prison reform. In this sense, voters want to see an increased focus on rehabilitation, fairer sentencing, and decreased recidivism rates.

The Figurative Sense of the Phrase

While one might think that this phrase pertains to spring (because that’s when new leaves sprout), the phrase refers to someone turning a page of a book. That’s because, in old English, pages of books were called “leaves.” Thus, when a person turns over a new leaf, they are turning to a fresh, new page and starting with a clean slate ().

What’s the Origin of This Phrase?

From the various sources I consulted, there was no agreement on the exact year (or decade) where the phrase “turn over a new leaf” originated. However, all sources placed the phrase in the 16th century.

  • According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer, the term arose in the early 1500s.
  • According to a page on Thesaurus.com, the phrase arose in the 1570s.
  • According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase “turn over a new leaf” first arose in the 1590s and it evolved from the phrase “turn the leaf,” which arose in the 1570s.

Why Don’t I Use the Phrase ‘Turn Over a New Leaf’ in My Speech?

I find that it is much easier to just make a commitment without making the declaration. That’s why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Other times, if I know that my job is on the line and that people are counting on me, I will push myself to get the job done.

Now, if you are one to make resolutions, here’s something to remember:

In a whimsical post for the Cambridge Dictionaries Online Blog, Liz Walter talked about New Year’s resolutions and included a bunch of phrases related to the subject. Here’s the general message: New Year’s resolutions are easy to break, but people can help themselves by making realistic resolutions, taking it day by day, and trying again if they fail. It’s not easy to turn over a new leaf; in fact, it takes a lot of work. That’s why people need to have the will, the focus, and the resiliency to make their resolutions come true.

Works Cited

“Autumnal Equinox 2018: The First Day of Fall.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Web. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://www.almanac.com/content/first-day-fall-autumnal-equinox>.

The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 1997, 2003.

Harper, Douglas. “leaf | Origin and meaning of leaf by Online Etymology Dictionary” Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://www.etymonline.com/word/leaf#etymonline_v_6617>.

Harris, Bronwyn (Editor) and McMahon, Mary (Original Author). “What does It Mean to ‘Turn over a New Leaf’?” wiseGEEK. Conjecture Corporation. Last Modified 21 Aug 2018. Web. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://www.wisegeek.com/what-does-it-mean-to-turn-over-a-new-leaf.htm>.

“Turn over a new leaf – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Web. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/turn+over+a+new+leaf>.

“Turn over a new leaf | Define Turn over a new leaf at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Web. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://www.dictionary.com/browse/turn–over–a–new–leaf>.

“Turn over a new leaf definition and meaning.” Collins English Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/turn-over-a-new-leaf>.

“turn over a new leaf Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Web. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/turn-over-a-new-leaf?>.

“Turn over a new leaf Synonyms, Turn over a new leaf Antonyms.” Thesaurus.com. Web. Retrieved 16 September 2018. <https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/turn%20over%20a%20new%20leaf>.

“Turn over a New Leaf.” Ginger Software. 2 Mar 2014. Web. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://www.gingersoftware.com/content/phrases/turn-over-a-new-leaf/>.

Walter, Liz. “Turning over a new leaf: idioms and phrases for the New Year.” About Words — Cambridge Dictionaries Online Blog. 4 Jan 2017. Weblog. Retrieved 16 Sept 2018. <https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2017/01/04/turning-over-a-new-leaf-idioms-and-phrases-for-the-new-year/>.

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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