No 10 has done a 'U-turn' on school meals: where does the term come from?

The government’s reversal of policy on free school meals is just the latest in its long line of U-turns

Why don’t we want politicians to change their minds after rational persuasion?
Why don’t we want politicians to change their minds after rational persuasion? Photograph: Robert Read Road Signs/Alamy
Why don’t we want politicians to change their minds after rational persuasion? Photograph: Robert Read Road Signs/Alamy

Last modified on Thu 19 Nov 2020 07.21 EST

The UK government made a “U-turn”, it was reported, when it agreed after all to extend free school meals, adding another letter to the very bad Scrabble rack representing its policy history. But why a “U-turn”?

The distinction between “u” and “v” as separate letters (they were the same in the Roman alphabet) dates only from the 16th century in Europe. In the early 19th century we hear of a lecture hall lit by gas from “u tubes”, which sounds rather modern. An 1825 medical text, meanwhile, refers to a “u-like” bone in the neck, the hyoid (literally, shaped like the Greek letter upsilon).

In motoring, the “U-turn” is first recorded in 1937 Baltimore, and by mid-century has been adopted to mean a “reversal of policy” (Webster’s), although one does not reverse while U-turning. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher made a famous pun – “You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning” – and to this day no one knows how she avoided bumping into walls. But should the media really greet every change of mind by politicians with gleeful jeers of “U-turn!”? Don’t we want them to change their minds after rational persuasion?

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.