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I had the pleasure of coming across one of Winthrop Mackworth Praed's better-known poems the other day, his 'A Letter of Advice', which purports to be a verse epistle from one young woman to another, and in which the letter-writer doles out unsolicited advice about the sort of man the recipient should marry. The full poem is a bit long, but here is a link.

I do not quite understand a line from the last verse, which reads:

Don't listen to tales of his bounty,
Don't hear what they say of his birth,
Don't look at his seat in the county,
Don't calculate what he is worth;
But give him a theme to write verse on,
And see if he turns out his toe;
If he's only an excellent person,-
My own Araminta, say "No!"

What does it mean to turn out one's toe? My educated guess is that it means something like "to have an unfavourable reaction", but it seems to be an extinct idiom which I cannot find used anywhere else, and thus I can neither confirm nor clarify my hypothesis.

I know that Lewis Carroll, in his ''Tis the Voice of the Lobster', states that said crustacean 'turns out his toes' - note the plural - but in any case this appears to be nonsense. I am also vaguely familiar a similar idiom, to turn up one's toes, which means to die, or otherwise collapse dramatically - compare popping one's clogs - but is that the same as turning out one's toes?

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  • In Alice in Wonderland, the Red Queen also tells Alice "Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing — turn out your toes when you walk — and remember who you are!'"
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 27, 2023 at 21:40
  • Could it be that turning out one's toes was considered an elegant way to stand or walk? Oct 28, 2023 at 9:19
  • @Kate: I think that must be the answer: From Extracts from a Journal Kept During a Residence in Little-Pedlington, by John Poole, 1835 (this appears to be fiction) we have "In walking, he turned out his toes in a most exemplary style, and trod as lightly as if the streets of Little-Pedlington had been paved with burning coals."
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 28, 2023 at 12:20
  • @PeterShor If you were to put that comment into an answer, I would accept it.
    – Tom Hosker
    Oct 28, 2023 at 23:27
  • "trip it as ye go / on the light fantastic toe"
    – verbose
    Oct 29, 2023 at 22:41

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Looking at 19th century books in Google books, it seems that turning out one's toes was the fashionable way to walk.

From Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, by John Poole (1860), we have

In walking he turned out his toes in a most exemplary style; and trod as lightly as if the streets of Little Pedlington had been paved with burning coals.

From Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1872), we have the Red Queen's advice to Alice:

'Speak in French when you can't think of the English for a thing —turn out your toes as you walk—and remember who you are!'

From The Memorial of John Bowen (1890), we have

I rejoice, as only a military man or a dancing master could, though I am neither, to hear that you are trying to turn out your toes. You would be surprised to know all the calamities that have happened to persons who did not turn out their toes.

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