Famous Sayings #168 — ‘About-Face’

November 11, 2019

The councilman was opposed to the community garden project before doing an about-face this past week. I wonder what changed his mind.

A drill sergeant teaches a group of Training Corps cadets how to do an about face. Original image via The United States Army website.

Since it’s Veterans Day in the United States, I decided to look at another military term. This time, it’s a term that has been wide-scale civilian use. I first heard of the term in the military sense, but as of late, I hear it more often in civilian use.

What Does ‘About-Face’ Mean?

In its original usage, an about-face means to take a 180° in a clockwise direction (or to one’s right). Usually, members of the military who are participating in a march on base or in a parade receive this order: “About, face!” The marchers respond to the command by touching the toe of their right foot to the ground about half the length of their foot to the rear and resting much of their weight on the heel of their left foot on the first count. The right toe needs to be slightly to the left of the left heel. On the second count, the soldier turns 180° to their right on their left heel and on the ball of their right foot, then stand at attention (“Facing”).

Nowadays, when someone uses the term “about-face” (which can be hyphenated or not), they are referring to someone who suddenly reverses their attitude, behavior, opinion, point of view, or position. The term otherwise refers to someone who quickly changes their direction.

The modern uses of “about-face” are somewhat of a metaphor. To literally do an about-face means to make a 180-degree turn. And just as someone who “does a 180” is changing their mind, so is someone who does an about-face.

Synonyms to about-face include “about turn:” (British), “backpedal,” and “turn around” (Various).

When Did This Phrase Originate?

Wiktionary cited 1861. Dictionary.com and The Free Dictionary cited sources that said the term originated around 1860-1865. Merriam-Webster cited 1835. There is some disagreement there, but it’s safe to say that “about-face,” clearly an American term, arose in the 19th century.

Can You Think of an About-Face Someone Made?

I can think of two. When Tom Wheeler was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was clearly against net neutrality at first. He was a former cable industry lobbyist and he even laughed when a pro-net neutrality activist was carried out of an FCC meeting. However, in 2015, he created the Open Internet Order, which (temporarily) made net neutrality the law of the land — that is until a former Verizon lawyer and corporate shill named Ajit Pai circumvented any semblance of order or respect for public opinion and overturned those rules.

Another about-face I have seen involves the National Football league’s position on marijuana. One year, I was arguing about someone about how wise the league’s drug policy was on with respect to players facing suspensions if they used marijuana. (As part of the 2011 bargaining agreement, players who tested positive for marijuana would face suspensions, but the trade-off was that the league wouldn’t test for the human growth hormone.)

I thought that the anti-marijuana policy was a stupid rule, but the person I was arguing with thought that the rules should be enforced. One of two years later, the same person argued that NFL players should be allowed to use marijuana based on its medicinal properties and its possible usage to reverse the effects of head injuries. This position really surprised me, although I agreed with it, because it seemed like a quick turnaround. However, my reversal on marijuana usage changed as quickly as his years prior when I learned more about it.

Works Cited

“About-face – definition of about-face by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc., https://www.thefreedictionary.com/about-face. Accessed 11 November 2019.

“About-face | Definition of About-face at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/about-face. Accessed 11 November 2019.

“About-face | Definition of About-face by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/about-face. Accessed 11 November 2019.

 “Facing Movements.” Army Study Guide, https://www.armystudyguide.com/content/Prep_For_Basic_Training/prep_for_basic_drill_and_ceremony/facing-movements.shtml. Accessed 11 November 2019.

Powers, Rod. “Individual Drill – Commands.” The Balance Careers, Updated 17 Sept 2018, https://www.thebalancecareers.com/individual-drill-commands-4057221. Accessed 11 November 2019. Various Authors. “about-face.” Wiktionary, Last Updated 14 October 2019, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/about-face. Accessed 11 November 2019.


One thought on “Famous Sayings #168 — ‘About-Face’

  1. Pingback: November 22nd 2019 – Weekly Roundup of Members Posts | Blogging Meetup

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