turn turtle

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A boat that has turned turtle (sense 1) or capsized

Possibly from the fact that turning a turtle and placing it on its back renders it helpless.[1]



turn turtle (third-person singular simple present turns turtle, present participle turning turtle, simple past and past participle turned turtle)

  1. (intransitive, now historical) To capture a turtle by turning it onto its back.
    • 1805, James Stanier Clarke, “Pacific Ocean”, in Naufragia or Historical Memoirs of Shipwrecks and of the Providential Deliverance of Vessels, London: Printed by I. Gold, [], for J. Mawman, [], OCLC 942605026, page 400:
      Before Noon, the next Day, I sent off the Master, Mr. Aikin, and a Party to the Island, victualled for a week, to turn Turtle. The Evening brought us light breezes with fine pleasant Weather; and the Cutter came back with a couple of Turtle, which we served out as before.
    • 1837, James Edward Alexander, chapter XII, in Narrative of a Voyage of Observation among the Colonies of West Africa, in the Flag-ship Thalia; and of a Campaign in Kaffir-land, on the Staff of the Commander-in-chief, in 1835. [...] In Two Volumes, volume I, London: Henry Colburn, publisher, [], OCLC 990934874, page 297:
      No ships' crews are now allowed to turn turtle, which is converted into a government monopoly; and two pounds ten shillings is the fixed price for each.
    • 1866, Richard Meade Bache, “How to Find a Turtles Nest—Habits of the Turtle—Turning Turtles”, in The Young Wrecker of the Florida Reef; or The Trials and Adventures of Fred Ransom, Philadelphia, Pa.: James S. Claxton, successor to W[illia]m S. & Alfred Martien, [], OCLC 937678731, page 297:
      It was agreed that we would go ashore that night, and turn turtle. The season being that when the turtles commence to lay, the captain was certain that we would capture at least one.
  2. (intransitive) Especially of a boat or ship, or some other vehicle: to turn upside down.
    Synonym: turtle (verb)
    • 1847, “A Leaf or Two from an Old Log”, in Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal, London: H. Hurst, [], OCLC 271677536, page 191:
      Gymnastics of every description, even the Kroo canoe afforded its mite towards the general hilarity, by turning turtle with the awkward aspirants for paddling fame.
    • 1848, [James Fenimore Cooper], chapter VI, in Jack Tier; or The Florida Reef. [...] In Two Volumes, volume I, New York, N.Y.: Published by Burgess, Stringer & Co., OCLC 318436778, page 157:
      This brig is American—the schooner alongside is a Spaniard, that turned turtle in a tornado, about six-and-thirty hours since, and on which we have been hard at work trying to raise her, since the gale which succeeded the tornado has blown its pipe out.
    • 1864, Oliver P[erry] Morton, chapter IV, in William M. French, editor, Life, Speeches, State Papers and Public Services of Gov. Oliver P. Morton, Cincinnati, Oh.: Moore, Wilstach, & Baldwin Printers, [], OCLC 795117134, page 89:
      If you ask a Douglas politician whether the people of the Territories have power to exclude slavery, he turns turtle, and draws his head under the shell of non-intervention.
    • 1925, Samuel A’Court Ashe, “Steamboats—Fulton Arrives”, in History of North Carolina [...] In Two Volumes, volume II (From 1783 to 1925), Raleigh, N.C.: Presses of Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, OCLC 3692008, page 267:
      It [the steamboat City of Fayetteville] was launched not far from the Clarendon bridge, and it has been related that some one having prophesied that it would turn turtle when it reached the water, the architect boldly rode in its bow, as it slipped off its ways and the event justified his faith in his work.
    • 1956 July, “Hi There! Stop and Ponder—and Save a Trip up Yonder”, in Leslie E. Troeger, editor, National 4-H News, volume XXXIV, number 7, Chicago, Ill.: National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work, OCLC 1759011, page 11:
      April 1956. Two Champaign youths racing, one with 1956 Plymouth, crashes through new woven wire fence, turns turtle.
  3. (intransitive, figuratively) To fail; to go belly up.
    • 2016, Bill Christine, “Put the Schadenfreude on Hold”, in Bill Hartack: The Bittersweet Life of a Hall of Fame Jockey, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, →ISBN, page 110:
      On a day-to-day basis, his [Bill Hartack's] business turned turtle; some years he wouldn't even win a hundred races. But at Derby time, he was still the jockey of choice, in demand for many of the major trainers.
  4. (intransitive, surfing) To roll upside down with one's surfboard (usually a longboard) to allow a wave, especially a wave that has already broken, to pass over.
    • 2009, Robert “Wingnut” Weaver; with Scott Bannerot, “Getting Started: A Complete Mini-primer”, in Wingnut’s Complete Surfing, Camden, Me.; New York, N.Y.: International Marine; McGraw-Hill, →ISBN, page 23:
      As you encounter waves on the way out, you have five ways of getting past them: [] Turn turtle. Turn upside down and hang onto the rails (i.e., the edges) near the nose of the board, pulling it downward, so that the oncoming wave pushes on this slanted shield, forcing you and the forward part of the board downward [].

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  1. ^ W[illiam] H[enry] Smyth; revised [...] by E[dward] Belcher (1867) , “TURN A TURTLE, To”, in The Sailor’s Word-book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, [], London: Blackie & Son, [], OCLC 220591803, pages 702–703.