The best result of my google-search for the origins of the idiomatic phrase, “turn over in the grave” was this, from wikipedia:

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."

Can anyone out there trace the phrase back further than 1849?

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    I'm going to hazard a guess that it somehow relates to witchcraft traditions in England.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 9, 2015 at 3:40
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    I am sure this exists in other languages as well.
    – Anixx
    Feb 9, 2015 at 6:02
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    This is a good question for the American Dialect Society Listserv (ADS-L). Submit what was supplied here, and see if they can "antedate" it. Feb 9, 2015 at 6:15
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    A little off-topic, but very important: "Roll Over Beethoven" was written by Chuck Berry. (So if "roll over" really is a variant, it's from Missouri.) Feb 9, 2015 at 9:37
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    But first I'll turn yon fellow in his grave; Shakespeare, Richard III (c1592) but I don't think it means the same thing; I think it means put / roll / dump/ turf shakespeare.mit.edu/richardiii/full.html
    – Frank
    Feb 9, 2015 at 9:39

5 Answers 5


I can try to set it back much further.

The Gemara are old Jewish texts. I can not say how old, as today is the first time I heard about them, but surely from before 1842, Wikipedia gives a date of 500 CE.

In there, in Sotah 7b, it says (in the English translation by Soncino):

All the years that the Israelites were in the wilderness, Judah's bones kept turning in his coffin until Moses arose and begged mercy for him.

The original reads:

כל אותן שנים שהיו ישראל במדבר היו עצמותיו של יהודה מגולגלין בארון עד שעמד משה ובקש עליו רחמים

I don't know if the 'modern' usage goes back to this text, it might have been 'reinvented' in the 1800s.

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    @Stephie Extremely literally. The Hebrew is "היו עצמותיו של יהודה מגולגלין בארון" -- Judah's bones would turn in the coffin.
    – Scimonster
    Feb 9, 2015 at 12:29
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    + 99 (would that I could), You've done such great detective work @Phil. I hate to deflate, but I'm not sure the sense of 'Judah's bones turning in his coffin' (like tumbling dice) is the same as a whole 'corpse turning over in its grave.' (Going from face up to face down, that's significant symbolism). Apparently, Judah and his dead kin, being carted around the wilderness for generations, were reduced to loose, clattering bones. Then, too, there is that bit about the bones reattaching themselves. I need more input. Can any of ya'll reading this help to clarify these questions?
    – user98990
    Feb 9, 2015 at 13:25
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    @LittleEva The sense of "גלגול" (the word used here for rolling) is used for turning over -- a wheel is a "גלגל החוזר." Jastrow (a dictionary of Talmudic Hebrew/Aramaic) renders the word as "roll," among other definitions.
    – Shokhet
    Feb 9, 2015 at 14:20
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    @LittleEva Yes, that's what it seems to me.
    – Scimonster
    Feb 9, 2015 at 14:28
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    The Gemara is a synonym for the Talmud. There are two variants - the Jerusalemite and the Babylonian (Yerushalmi and Bavli) - created by the two larger agglomeration of Jewish scholars at those times. "Those times" are after the earlier religious text (and codex) called the Mishna was finalized. So, Mishna at around 200 CE, Talmud is accumulated over the next several centuries or so, then Talmud is finalized between/around 500-600 CE.
    – einpoklum
    Feb 9, 2015 at 22:26

I can push it back a little further, but not much. Here's what Google Books gives for 1700–1849:

1848 – Why, his very bones would turn in his grave at the bare thought of it — Farmers' Library and Monthly Journal of Agriculture, Volume 3

1847 – Could our deceased father hear that, I think he’d turn in his grave. — Rambleton: A Romance of Fashionable Life in New-York During the Great Speculation of 1836

1845 – The Scotch Presbyterians are building a stone Gothic temple in Oxford-road, which would almost make John Knox turn in his grave with dismay. — The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol 35

1843 –What has become of Prussian honour? A general of infantry, with fourteen battalions and twenty escadrons, runs away before 2500 men! If your father could hear this it would make him turn in his grave. — The Foreign Quarterly Review

1842 – Burke may smile, or turn in his grave, if he pleases ; yet the assertion just made is true. — The Eclectic Review, Vol 1

Thackeray seems to have had a pretty live ear for currently fashionable language.

  • +1 That's good, @Stoney (the TV said Stony Lewis just as I was trying to type your name - uncanny!), I should have found that. Thanks.
    – user98990
    Feb 9, 2015 at 3:48
  • @LittleEva Google Books is a great resource for this sort of thing, but you have to be very careful with the reported results: there are a lot of errors in their database, so you have to pretty much check the dates on every hit. Feb 11, 2015 at 12:12

The oldest reference I've found in English uses the phrase turn in his coffin, used with the same meaning as that required. It comes from 1802, in The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine (page 28) in the following passage:

I should be glad to know what our ancestors would have thought and felt in this situation? what those weak a deluded men, so inferior to the politicians of the present day, the Marlboroughs, the Godolphins, the Somers's (sp?), the King Williams, all those who view with such apprehension the power of Louis XIV., what they would say to a peace, which not only confirms to France the possession of nearly the whole of Europe, but extends her empire over every other part of the globe. Is there a man of them, who would not turn in his coffin could he be sensible to a twentieth part of that which is passing, as perfect matter of course, in the politicks of the present moment?

Falkner; a novel the final novel by Mary Shelley, written in 1837 includes this sentence (pp 27 to 28):

It was bad enough now, but, by and by, she saw nothing but the parish ; though Missy was born for better than that, and her poor mamma would turn in her grave at the name of such a thing.

On October 26 1816 in Cobbett's Weekly Political Pamphlet (page 409) is the sentence:

These regulations , and the penalties which are attached to any breach of them, operate to an almost total exclusion of the common people from any considerable portion of useful knowledge through the means of the press, about the freedom of which our unprincipled hirelings have still the audacity to boast, though if our forefathers could hear of the state of slavery to which it is reduced, the hearing of it would make them turn in their graves.

Not quite so early, but still significant in terms of the adoption of the phrase, is that it was used in the UK parliament on April 19 1831, as recorded by Hansard (p1609)

A predecessor of the right hon. Gentleman in the Chair had declared, that practices were now openly avowed with respect to seats in that House, which were sufficient to make our ancestors, could they be informed of them, turn in their graves;

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    @LittleEva gone another 21 yrs further back now Feb 9, 2015 at 12:11
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    found "turn in their graves" via google books, then googled the name of the publication and found that hathitrust listed it too. Feb 9, 2015 at 12:29
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    @LittleEva Yes, I am. Personally I doubt that the phrase has leapt 1300 years form Hebrew to English with nothing in between. I'm currently trying to find if it occurs in Latin or Greek. Meanwhile, I've pushed the date back to 1802. Feb 9, 2015 at 14:23
  • Herodotus (5th century BC) uses "Agamemnon would wail loudly" to mean the same thing. It is in fact sometimes translated as "Agamemnon would turn in his grave", but not literally, alas. Feb 9, 2015 at 15:24
  • Yes, Phil, I do believe you're correct, it's used in the same sense. So close!
    – user98990
    Feb 9, 2015 at 15:29

"sich im Grab umdrehen" is a common saying in German. I did not research but my guess is that the saying wandered from German into English, perhaps by translation of novels. But maybe already the old Romans had this saying.

Added: There is not much to be found about the German saying. There are instances from the 18th c. (Lessing, Gellert) and it is assumed that the saying is older. I skimmed through Grimm's article Grab (grave) and found nothing about the saying, even though the article Grab is a book. - Added: Grimm has two instances for the saying under umdrehen, from about 1800-1830.

The saying is found in other languages too.

Spanish: revolcarse en la tumba.

Italian: rivoltarsi nella tomba.

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    Yeah, rogermue, that's exactly what's behind my query. It's kind of hard to believe it only dates to 1842 (thanks, Stoney) or is exclusive to the English language cultures. The voice of Tradition admonishing the folly of Youth. It must connect to ancestor worship where it was a violation of taboo to even propose innovation. Irritating deceased ancestors was--still is--a universal fear (and threat) of Anthropos.
    – user98990
    Feb 9, 2015 at 8:36
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    I had a look at the data base DWDS but they have no info about the saying. But I'll have a look at Grimm DWB. But Grimm can't have info about the wandering of the saying into English.
    – rogermue
    Feb 9, 2015 at 13:36
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    This is turning out to be virtually universal an timeless, going back into the dim mist. Thanks for the input. Wish I could upvote more than once.
    – user98990
    Feb 9, 2015 at 15:34

None of the references I checked gave an earlier first-occurrence date than Wikipedia's, but one—The Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (1998)—makes the interesting claim that, while the phrase "turn in [one's] grave" is "British, American & Australian," the allied phrases "turn over in [one's] grave" and "spin in [one's] grave" are strictly American. Evidently, disgruntled corpses tend to be livelier in the United States than in the rest of the world. The earliest deceased spinners in a Google Books search date only to 1902, however.

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    Beethoven was a "spinner"! And he's Germanic!
    – user98990
    Feb 9, 2015 at 8:38
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    People were buried face down as a sign of shame or disrespect. The significance of the saying is that they turn once to end up face down because you have disgraced them, spinning or turning multiple times is just misspeak.
    – JamesRyan
    Feb 9, 2015 at 10:34
  • Yes, +1 @James Ryan, that's right.
    – user98990
    Feb 9, 2015 at 13:58
  • I think "spin" is simply hyperbole applied to "roll over". The kind of thing one would expect in The Machine Age where everything is faster.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 9, 2015 at 16:44

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