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What does It Mean to "Turn over a New Leaf"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term "to turn over a new leaf" is used to refer to making a new start. It is often used specifically to describe changes in personal behavior that are made with the goal of being a better person. Many people are encouraged to do this if they struggle in interpersonal relationships, as a way of asking them to think about how their own behaviors might be influencing their interactions with other people.

From the sound of it, one might think that this phrase is related to freshly budding green leaves in the spring, which carry a pleasant image of renewal and fresh starts. The term actually refers to turning the page of a book, however, and it dates to the 1500s. The implication is that one is turning over the previous page with the bad behavior, and starting anew on a fresh page.

Allegedly, when accused of recidivism after promising to change, Oscar Wilde once said that he earnestly intended to turn over a new leaf, but he hadn't gotten to the bottom of the page yet. He supposedly assured his critic that as soon as he was done, he would make good on his promise.

In the context of personal behavior, turning over a new leaf can take a number of forms. Many New Year's resolutions are a form of new beginning, with people vowing to make changes in their lifestyles which are intended to be beneficial. People might also vow at any time of the year to make changes in the way they treat coworkers or employees with the goal of making their working environments more pleasant, or to change their attitude to authority figures in the hopes of getting along better.

The term is also sometimes used more generally to refer to entities, rather than specific individuals. For example, a city that radically changed its policies on some issue might be said to be turning a new leaf, and the term would also be used to reference improvement.

Many people believe that any time is a good time to turn over a new leaf, and that there is always room for personal improvement. By carefully examining one's past relationships and present behavior, sometimes it is possible to find an area for improvement that could be addressed by resolving to change and start a fresh page.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bagley79 — On Nov 07, 2012

I like the comparison of turning over a new leaf with turning the page in a book. When you are reading a good book you often refer to it as a page turner. Each page gets you closer to solving the mystery or figuring out a solution.

As far as personally turning over a new leaf, a new page gives me fresh start. I am much more motivated to make changes if I feel like I have a new page to start on instead of staying on the same page all the time. I think turning over a new leaf also takes discipline. Just because you decide to do this doesn't mean you only have to do it one time. You have to keep at it to accomplish what you are hoping for.

By SarahSon — On Nov 06, 2012

I quit making New Year's resolutions a long time ago. I think they just set you up for failure and discouragement. One problem I had was I would make too many resolutions and there was no way I could tackle all of them at once.

I believe everyone is a work in progress and that changing attitudes and actions is an ongoing thing. While there have been certain situations in my life that were a turning point, most of the time I feel like turning over a new leaf is like starting a new day.

Every day I have the chance to be better than I was the day before. For me, this is much less pressure and more effective than trying to make all those changes at one time like the beginning of a new year.

By myharley — On Nov 05, 2012

I agree that any time is a good time to turn over a new leaf. For me, it is easy to procrastinate and say I will do something later. There really is no time like the present to make positive changes in your life. Even though it isn't always easy, I always feel so much better about myself when I resolve to change negative behavior or actions instead of thinking I will get around to it someday.

By NotPerfect2 — On Nov 04, 2012

"Turning over a new leaf." I'm getting older, not younger. My personal demons are and/or was/still taking their toll on me. From my perspective, my priorities are not in order, but it's a constant work in progress. Every day is a struggle. In my mindset I feel that something is going to have to give, so I'm just in the process of "turning over a new leaf."

By discographer — On Oct 18, 2012

We have this same idiom in Chinese but we say "turn over a new page." In this Chinese saying, a book stands for someone's life and turning a page in it means the person is making a major change in their life. It means that they are going in a different direction or they have entered a different period.

By ysmina — On Oct 18, 2012

@MikeMason-- I don't know but it's used often in rehab programs to motivate people to overcome their addictions or their past.

I think for the most part, turning over a new leaf quote is used when someone makes a personal effort to change themselves and to change their lives. I suppose it also means moving on and starting fresh in a psychological sense as well.

The best example of this that comes to my mind right now is an ex-criminal who gets out of jail and vows never to be involved in crime again. If he changes his tendencies and leads an honest life, we would say that he has turned over a new leaf.

By stoneMason — On Oct 17, 2012

I use this idiom sometimes but I wasn't using it in the way it is described here. I usually hear people use this idiom when they're talking about moving on with life or looking to the future.

So, for example, if one of my friends broke up with her boyfriend and is trying to forget about him, I would tell her to turn over a new leaf and pretend that none of this ever happened. It's like a fresh start where you can do things differently and you don't have to get caught up in the past.

Is this the right way to use this idiom though?

By Acracadabra — On May 20, 2011

I think it must be incredibly difficult for those trying to learn English as a second language. I can't imagine how you make sense of things like idioms!

By CaithnessCC — On May 19, 2011

@Penzance356 - I would say that most people tend to think of the phrase turning over a new leaf as meaning an individual, or sometimes a corporation, making a mature decision to curtail their own bad behavior or atitude.

Personally I'm as likely to use it in different situations. A good example concerns myself as a teenager. I was always the kind and generous kid, and some people took advantage of that. So I made a decision to respect my time more and stop being helpful to out and out users.

For me that was a fairly major change, but I'm sure plenty of folk didn't see it as a very good 'new page' to be turning to.

By Penzance356 — On May 18, 2011

I'm researching English idioms for a project, so this is really useful information to me. I had no idea that the phrase turning over a new leafs origin was linked to a literal action.

The question that is in my mind now is, is this symbolic behavior always about making positive changes which benefit others?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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