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What Does "about Face" Mean?

By Marlene de Wilde
Updated May 23, 2024
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"About face" is an English idiom which means a sudden and complete change of one's plans, ideas and actions. It is also used to mean a complete turn of direction in a physical sense as in someone who is walking north, suddenly turns direction and starts walking south. Someone who has turned and faced another direction is said to have done a "complete about face." The origin of the expression is not certain but it probably came into common use based on its meaning in the military.

The expression is used in the English military. When the drill sergeant shouts "about face," then the soldiers know to turn on their heels and face the opposite direction. One of the earliest citations of the expression that has been found is in a book called Practical Observations on the Art of War written in 1711 by an English soldier called Major William Young. In it, Young explains the meaning of commands including that of "to the right about face." "About" means to face the opposite way. A synonym for the term is "about turn."

There is a similar expression in Italian and French. In Italian, "voltafaccia" is translated to mean "to turn" from the verb "voltare" and "face" from "faccia." The expression is used to describe a turnabout especially when referring to a reversal of opinion or policy. "Volta face" is the word in French.

An idiom is a phrase which has a different meaning to the normal meaning of the words which form it. "About", for example, as a preposition means of or connected with and as an adverb means near, nearly or nearby. "Face" in its most common usage means the front part of the head. When used as a verb, it means to look towards something or confront something.

Learning idioms can be very difficult for second language learners. The English language has thousands of such expressions and this is one of the aspects of it that makes it hard to learn. "About face," when considered logically, should mean "connected to the front part of the head." The usual rules of compositional semantics do not apply and while some idioms may be understood by considering the separate components, others make no sense whatsoever. The use of idioms with ease is the hallmark of a native speaker and so speakers of English as a second language are obliged to learn them if they wish to be proficient.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By mrwormy — On May 22, 2014

When I was in the Army, we did a lot of marching drills in basic training. When the drill instructor ordered "about face", we had to stop in our tracks, plant one foot as a pivot point and turn around 180 degrees. The direction you thought you were going in was no longer the direction you were headed.

I now find that to be true in my professional life. I can assume a client is going to agree to the terms of a contract or buy into an advertising pitch, but he or she can always do an about face. There are no guarantees in life. Sometimes the decision to go in the opposite direction turns out to be the right one in the long run.

By RocketLanch8 — On May 22, 2014

I've also heard a similar expression: "He did a 180 on the project" or "He made a 180 degree turn on that album". It's the same idea as performing an about face while marching. Suddenly everything is in reverse, and people must make adjustments accordingly. I've always thought of an "about face" as an abrupt and unexpected sort of thing.

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