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To quote Demitri Martin (taken from this session at around 0:57):

When there's someone who's dead and then someone does something that that person would not have liked, they say that that person is spinning in their grave. But I don't understand why they say that; why is spinning the way that a corpse shows disapproval? [...] If we showed disapproval like that when we were alive, that would make more sense.

Where did this expression spinning in his grave come from? Did it originate in English, or did it come in from another language or culture?

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For "where did the expression come from?", see here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn_in_one%27s_grave#Etymology –  Kris Jan 19 at 8:12
    
Rabin spinning in his grave on Jerusalem widow says books.google.co.uk/… –  Kris Jan 19 at 8:14

5 Answers 5

The Phrase Finder mentions a usage that traces back to 1864, and then quotes another from 1888:

"This holiday-making and mixture of high and low here, are themselves enough to make Sir Massingberd turn in his grave." (James Payn's Lost Sir Massingberd)

Jefferson might turn in his grave if he knew of such an attempt. (James Bryce, The American Commonwealth)

Wikipedia mentions an even earlier quote, from 1849:

One of the earliest uses is found in William Thackeray's 1849 work The History of Pendennis, where Mrs. Wapshot, upset by a man's advances on the widow of Mr. Pendennis whom the widow had "never liked," says it's "enough to make poor Mr. Pendennis turn in his grave."

If the Ngram is to be believed, it looks like the phrase was working itself into idiom status by the turn of the century:

If my old friend Kimball could know how he is named by you I feel sure he would turn over in his grave and hide his face for very shame. (The Railway Age and Northwestern Railroader, Volume 28, 1899)

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I'm pretty sure it's

"turning over in their grave".

And it's more of an analogy to being disturbed in your sleep. When you're sleeping and someone/something disturbs you (say, a loud sound, or someone speaking to you), don't you tend to turn away from it and change your position?

Also sometimes if you're having a bad dream, you tend to turn in your sleep.

EDIT:
Oops. Just realised I only partly answered your question. I don't know about the geographical origin, but @J.R seems to have answered that part.

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It could be spin, turn, or roll over. –  J.R. Jan 19 at 7:31
    
I've actually never heard the 'spin' version until now. That's quite interesting: spinning seems to imply fast and continuous rotation, as opposed to simply turning over. –  mikhailcazi Jan 19 at 7:33
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It only makes sense; after "turning in his grave" became trite, so that the imagery of a dead person moving about restlessly was no longer shocking, someone felt they had to emphasize the deceased person's shock even more – one turn simply wasn't enough. It seems like that might have happened around 1940. –  J.R. Jan 19 at 8:03
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Quite hilarious, if you think about it. Sigh, I love language. –  mikhailcazi Jan 19 at 8:12

It may come from the gravestone inscription "rest in peace". This was originally meant to refer to the spirit, but was later interpreted as the body resting in peace.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rest_in_peace

It follows that a dead person who not resting at peace will move around in their grave like a restless sleeper. The idea of "spinning" in their grave is a comic exaggeration.

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I doubt it. And the inscription is Requiescat in pace, or RIP for short. –  Pitarou Jan 20 at 10:50
    
@Pitarou The Wikipedia article the user linked to seems to indicate that both rest and requiescat are fine and used. –  IQAndreas Jan 21 at 5:02

Actually the original fact behind the idea of a corpse turning in the grave is that it was often found that when graves were opened, the skeleton was found turned around, on its belly, so to speak. What it means is that the person was not really dead, but was buried alive.

In Europe, most graves are removed for new use after a certain time; the places I know of it is 20 or 25 years, i.e. about a "generation", because there is not enough space for all the graves required. That is why they are opened to remove the bones. And it seems it happened relatively often that the skeleton was turned around, which meant it was a sign of the struggle of the person to open the casket and get out. This is common knowledge among gravediggers, and must have become known in general in earlier times, so that the idea of spinning as an exaggeration developed.

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I, too, strongly suspect that this is the origin of "turn in one's grave". –  Pitarou Jan 20 at 10:51
    
Do you have a reliable source for that information? Not the etymology, but the paragraph about there being a statistically significant amount of upside-down bodies. I would assume that information is hypocritical, but it may have been around for many years, still allowing for the rumors to be the source of the expression. –  IQAndreas Jan 21 at 6:21
    
I would actually have to interview gravediggers, and as far as still possible find very old ones, because in very recent generations this scenario has become more unlikely, as the state of actual death was more clearly ascertained, than possibly in previous centuries. There might also be literature about this, perhaps from diaries. But I don't think it would amount to "statistical significance". For one gravedigger to just find one case should be shocking and tragic enough... But that news would certainly spread like wildfire. (I am at the moment in Asia; have to look into it when back home.) –  justthis Feb 11 at 9:25

To spin in one's grave dates from around 1900, for example in this 1903 US newspaper. The original phrase is to turn in one's grave.

The OED's earliest quotation is from 1881.

The earliest I found was from a 4th November 1801 House of Commons speech by a Mr. Windham on Britain giving too much power to France during the preliminaries of peace of the revolutionary wars:

Thus have we done a thing altogether unknown in the history of this country ; a thing which would have scared all former politicians ; a thing, which, if our old Whig politicians were now to hear, they would turn in their graves.

Thus have we done a thing altogether unknown in the history of this country ; a thing which would have scared all former politicians ; a thing, which, if our old Whig politicians were now to hear, they would turn in their graves.

Source: The Parliamentary Register: Or an Impartial Report of the Debates that Have Occured in the Two Houses of Parliament, Volume 1 (1802)

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I've sent the 1801 antedating to the OED. –  Hugo Jan 20 at 9:50

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