One of our recently created English lessons uses the phrasal verb “tune out” which I’ve had to explain to most of the students who’ve taken the lesson. Explaining this verb multiple times led me to think of its opposite, “tune in” which led me to think of the most famous use of this phrase by Timothy Leary the 1960s along with two other phrasal verbs, “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.”
Leary was one of the great insane figures to rise out of the 1960s in the United States, a Harvard faculty member who advocated the use of psychedelic drugs in the pursuit of higher consciousness. Leary was eventually kicked out of Harvard, went on to promote the taking of psychedelic substances, escaped from prison after tricking psychiatrists who were using tests he had developed to determine his chances of escaping, and generally became a popular figure in the 1960s countercultural movement (John Lennon wrote “Come Together” for Leary).
He famously used the three phrasal verbs “Turn on, tune in, drop out” to summarize his message to a gathering of about 30,000 hippies in San Francisco in 1967. For many, it became a summary of the philosophy of that era’s counter culture.
From his original speech:
Like every great religion of the past we seek to find the divinity within and to express this revelation in a life of glorification and the worship of God. These ancient goals we define in the metaphor of the present — turn on, tune in, drop out.
And his later explanation of this speech:
“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.”
Ok, so those particular meanings of Turn on, Tune in and Drop out may not be particularly useful to you. But they are all important phrasal verbs.
To turn on is normally a very literal phrasal verb, meaning to activate something. Ex: Turn on the lights. I turned on the television.
Careful though, as this phrasal verb can have a sexual connotation in some circumstances, no doubt a result of so many hippies using the word 😉 This was likely how The Beatles were using the verb in “A Day in the Life” when they sing “I love to turn you on.”
To tune in has two common meanings. Historically, we “tuned in” our televisions and radios, meaning we turned the dial until we found the clearest signal. These days, tuning in is associated with focusing your attention. Ex. John tuned into the meeting when he heard his name mentioned. It’s opposite phrasal verb is to tune out.
To drop out means to abruptly stop doing something, and especially to stop being part of a program. Ex. Bill Gates was a college drop out. A lot of people drop out of military training because it is so difficult.
So there you go, three new phrasal verbs and some American history.