Spinning in Graves

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 31

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Here's a headline I saw last year: "Enter the Dragon remake? Bruce Lee must be spinning in his grave..."

I'll be honest, it caught my eye less for the news than for the too-clever play on Bruce Lee's most famous move, because, spin in one's grave is one of those super-malleable idioms that allows for all kinds of clever twists and turns in the actual wordage (see what I did there?) without losing its hyperbolic frothing-at-the-mouth-ness.

What I mean is, the original use of the idiom was in 1801 (I'm taking Wikipedia's sourced citation for this) was about political decisions that would make their creators "turn in their graves." Over the years, variations like "roll" and "spin" have taken their place as alternative forms of the idiom. By now, I'd argue that the phrase is so common, writers can add their own versions like "twist" and "revolve." In fact, a quick Google reveals dozens of hits for each version.

But, sometimes, an idiom has become so cliche that it's most noticeable in its absence: It's sports season here in Japan. Aside from the Rugby World Cup, there have been a couple of big tennis events, both the men's and women's Volleyball World Cups, and the Formula One Grand Prix have all been held in Japan within the past two months (September and October 2019), and yet, in all the reporting I've read and watched, I have not heard a single instance of "turn in your grave."

Now, that doesn't really mean anything. It could be that it was printed dozens of times and I just didn't see it, or it could be that it (or its equivalent) was uttered in a language I don't speak during a live broadcast. But, in noting its absence, it got me thinking about all the times I had heard it and what it actually meant.

As I said above, it is a particularly foamy phrase, used to show that someone closely identified with whatever is happening now, would be so disturbed by current events that they would be unable to rest easily in their graves. In other words, bad writing makes Shakespeare and Mark Twain turn in their graves, controversial baseball calls make Babe Ruth roll in his, and, well, remakes of perfectly good martial arts films make Bruce Lee spin in his.

But I don't like using it and was glad to see its absence. There's nothing wrong with the image, particularly. I mean, there are, presumably, things that make us all toss-and-turn at night when we're trying to sleep, so it makes sense to carry that imagery with us until we're engaged in the big sleep and our descendants are making a mockery of our life's work through their ineptness. However. It also carries with it a bit of gatekeeping.

If I know a subject well enough to say that you are so tarnishing it through your actions that its progenitor would be rolling in their grave, then I'm likewise insinuating that I know that subject better than you do. In fact, I know it so well that I can claim to know the thoughts of said deceased progenitor well enough to know that they would not be happy with the current situation. Only, I don't. Neither do you. Neither does anyone, really. (I will stipulate that none-of-us really know each other that well, no matter how close you are in life, or, alternately, no matter how well researched you are in that person's life.)

All that being said, if there is any one week of the year when talk of graves and who may or may not be spinning within, it has to be this one, when Halloween is almost upon us. So, with that in mind, Happy Halloween. Beware of cemeteries and graveyards and let the dead rest undisturbed by hyperbole and foolishness alike.

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Collins Cobuild Idioms Dictionary:

would turn in your grave (U.K.)

would turn over in your grave (U.S.)

If you say that someone who is dead would turn in their grave, you mean that they would be very angry or upset about something which is happening now, if they knew about it.



The earliest known example is a 4 November 1801 House of Commons speech by a Mr. Windham warning Britain against giving too much power to France during the preliminaries to peace following 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."

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Notable Events of 1801:

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The Seven Song Playlist: Rolling, Twisting, Turning