What does the phrase "The worm has turned" mean?
#111898. Asked by star_gazer. (Jan 04 10 5:45 PM)
When Shakespeare used that simple phrase, "The worm has turned," he knew his audience would understand its meaning and origin. A widely used expression even today, it indicates a reversal of fortune, but few who use it know why. |
"Worm" is a common term for 'dragon.' In fairy tale terms, the flying dragon spewing fire would ravage fields and villages. To be in the dragon's path resulted in inescapable destruction. What a relief if it changed directions.
The phrase persists through time and changing cultures because it describes a more ancient and universal force: the annual cycle of the sun. As time cycles through the seasons, the Dragon circles through the Zodiac. After summer solstice, when long summer days dry the earth, the Dragon ravages the land bringing drought and pestilence. As the seasons change, the worm turns.
This is news to me; I thought it just meant luck has changed.|
It's one of many derived forms of an old proverb, the base of which is either tread on a worm and it will turn or even a worm will turn. It means 'even the most humble will strike back if abused enough'.
The proverb is first recorded in John Heywood's 1546 collection of proverbs in the form: "Tread a woorme on the tayle and it must turne agayne." Shakespeare uses it, of course: "The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on" (Henry VI, part III). It has remained common in all sorts of literature: "He's a very meek type. Still, the worm will turn, or so they say." (Agatha Christie, The Mirror Crack'd).
But while the lowly worm definitely gets no respect, even the lowliest critter has its limits, which brings us to the saying that's been puzzling you all these years. It comes from a very old proverb, "Tread on a worm and it will turn," meaning that even the humblest creature (or person) will resent being badly treated and eventually revolt. The first written form of this adage yet found comes from 1546, and Shakespeare invoked it in his 1593 Henry VI, part II: "The smallest Worme will turne, being troden on." The poet Robert Browning gave the sentiment a bit more pathos in his dramatic monologue "Mr. Sludge the 'Medium'" in 1864: "Tread on a worm, it turns, sir! If I turn, Your fault!"
Just what a worm can hope to accomplish by turning on its tormentor is a bit unclear, but in this case it really is the thought that counts. Extended to human beings, "the worm will turn" speaks of the indomitable human resistance to tyranny...
Worms of the world, turn!
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