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“To turn the other cheek” ― Meaning of this Idiomatic Phrase

“To turn the other cheek” ― Meaning of this Idiomatic Phrase

English has many idiomatic expressions that native speakers use without thinking about it.

Although overuse of any idiom is frustrating, misusing these phrases can be really cringey, so it’s important to have a thorough understanding of them.

One phrase with a long history and a complicated set of meanings is “turn the other cheek.”
 

What does “turn the other cheek” mean?

The expression “turn the other cheek” has its origins in a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus Christ called The Sermon on the Mount. One of these sayings contains the expression, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him also.” Almost all people using this expression today mean that if someone hits or otherwise threatens you with violence, you should “turn” the other cheek and walk away. A more interesting interpretation is that Jesus was preaching subversive nonviolent responses to overzealous law enforcement, but this meaning is not in common use.
 

The meaning of “turn the other cheek”

In modern use, the expression “turn the other cheek” almost always means to avoid responding to violence with violence.

Of course, it can also be used to refer to non-physical violence like arguing or aggressive posturing.

As seen from the description above, this meaning of the expression comes directly from the teachings Jesus gave to his disciples in his sermon.

Since it’s held up as the opposite of taking “an eye for an eye” in revenge, it stands to reason that “turn the other cheek” would mean “don’t get revenge.”

From revenge, it’s easy to see how this expression came to mean “don’t take any kind of violent action, even if someone attacks you.”
 

How to use “turn the other cheek” in a sentence

The meaning of “turn the other cheek” should now be clear. How do you use it in everyday speech?

The original text of the Sermon on the Mount gives us a good idea, even though it’s a bit archaic. Jesus says if someone “slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well.”

In practice, this is shortened to just “turn the other cheek.” Otherwise, the usage is the same.

Simply place this expression after a bit of violence somebody is proposing. You can also put it anywhere else a verb phrase would fit in a sentence, such as after “I want you to.”

Finally, the expression can be used as a complete sentence on its own as a general reminder to somebody not to use violence, no matter how tempting it might be.
 

Examples

“When life gives you lemons, turn the other cheek and make lemonade.”

This example adds another expression into the mix. It could mean not to get mad when something bad happens but to turn away from anger and find the good side of things.

“That guy just cut me off in traffic.” “I know it’s hard, but it’s safer to just turn the other cheek.”
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Here, someone gives a driver good advice to avert an incident of road rage.

“Mom, lots of kids at my school get into fights.”

“If they ever try to mess with you, promise me you’ll turn the other cheek.”

Finally, an example of a mother giving her child a warning not to get into fights.

All these examples show people using “turn the other cheek” to mean not engaging in violence or revenge.
 

An alternative meaning for “turn the other cheek”

One other interesting interpretation of “turn the other cheek” is that of Walter Wink, a Biblical scholar and progressive activist.

Wink argues that, in Jesus’s times, this phrase actually invited his disciples to engage in nonviolent resistance to authority.

Because being struck in the left cheek would have required someone to use the left hand, which was considered unclean, it would have required the attacker to themselves commit a kind of crime.

Likewise, Jesus’s other examples sound like compassion to us, but in the ancient Roman province of Galilee where Jesus preached, they too would have resulted in the attacker committing a crime.

Seeing someone naked brought shame to the viewer, while forcing someone to walk more than a mile was a crime under Roman law.

Although Wink’s argument is fascinating and sounds believable, this meaning of “turn the other cheek” isn’t really used today.

 

The origin of “turn the other cheek”

Many idioms have no clear origin. This one, however, comes from The Sermon on the Mount, a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus Christ that contains a number of expressions still used today.

In this sermon (located in chapter 5 of Matthew, if you’re the sort of person who has a Bible on hand), Jesus is sharing his teachings with his disciples, teaching them how to follow him in proper worship of God and just generally behave like good people.

One of the expressions Jesus mentions is “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” used to justify revenge against someone who has harmed you.

Jesus, in contrast, says not to “oppose an evil one” but that if someone “slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well.”

He provides more examples, too, including giving your coat to someone who has sued for your shirt, and walking two miles with someone who forces you to walk one mile.

Just in case the message is not clear, this section ends by spelling out the lesson. “Give to whoever asks you and lend to whoever wants to borrow from you — don’t turn them away.”

Out of all the examples in the sermon, it’s “turn the other cheek” that has stuck around in the popular imagination in English.

Usage of the expression dates at least as far back as 1800 according to Google’s NGram viewer although it drastically increased starting in the mid-1980s.