My friend’s husband got in on the discussion with the idea that worms were turning as they chewed their way through old books -- that we were, in other words, talking about bookworms.* Challenged, he looked up the phrase on his phone and announced that the worm will turn came not quite from Shakespeare, but close. A 1546 book of proverbs by John Heywood, he said, contained this gem: “Treade a worme on the tayle, and it must turne agayne.”
“But that’s not the same thing,” my friend said.
“Not at all,” I said -- still unsure what the same thing would be, much less its origin. I promised to check the Oxford English Dictionary. Before I did, though, I asked another friend what he thought the worm has turned meant. Revenge? he guessed. Someone nefarious has changed tack and is seeking revenge?
Sort of like Michael Cohen, I suggested.
Exactly, he said, and I immediately thought of Trump’s former lawyer waking up one morning to find himself changed into a giant worm, pace Kafka.
Confusion over the expression’s meaning, variations, and origin, I suspect, begins with the word worm. Like the association of bug with anything vaguely insectlike, worm has referred not just to “a member of the genus Lumbricus; a slender, creeping, naked, limbless animal, usually brown or reddish, with a soft body divided into a series of segments,” but also to just about any creeping, crawling, slippery thing. And these creatures don’t just live underground; sometimes they climb, run, or fly. When Lord Clifford opines, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 --
The smallest worm will turn being trodden on,
And doves will peck in safeguard of their brood.
-- he clearly refers to a lowly creature who will twist around … and do what? Not having a mouth, it can hardly bite you on the toe. Still, symbolically, the phrase does suggest a reversal of fortune for those who have been treated badly.
But Nancy Sherer of the Salmon River Gazette takes worm in its sense as dragon, an admittedly archaic meaning but one that could still spark fear in medieval readers with lines like this, from Romans of Partenay (1475): “The serpent fill don dede ... Which worme was ny ryght ten hole feete of lenght.” The worm was often also configured as the Devil. Per the OED, Milton refers to the serpent in Eden as “that false Worm,” and, as late as 1867, William Morris wrote of “a fearful battle betwixt worm and man.” In this sense, Sherer argues, the worm has turned betokens good fortune, since you might have been in the dragon’s path had it not thus veered off course.
Judging from actual uses of the phrase -- the worm has turned or the worm will turn -- we either haven’t made up our minds what it means or we bend the meaning as needed to fit the situation. Six recent references in the Corpus of Contemporary American English use the worm has turned to mean, variously, an ironic change of fortune (“George Bush intended to turn this campaign into another mud-toss rather than defend his awful domestic record. Now the worm has turned and he cries foul”); a moment of revenge (“Honeycutt races onto the stage to pull off the still tap dancing Mantan as the Harlem natives BUMRUSH the stage. THE WORM HAS TURNED”); the start of good things for the underdog (“‘You have to think the worm has turned,’ [Cubs] manager Lou Piniella said after [the Cubs beat the Astros]”); victory for the bad guys (“Whether they are dismayed by the way things played out in Egypt or by the growth of Al Qaeda in Syria, the worm has turned in the Middle East in the minds of American foreign policy makers”); or stool pigeons (“Renko’s illicit connection to the mayor would’ve trumped any charges. Not to mention, not a single worm has turned.”).
Google’s N-gram viewer provides more evidence of confusion. While the worm will turn has been on a sharp rise since the turn of this century, those who have looked closely at the proverb have come away with analyses like this one, from Shankar’s Weekly:
If you meet a worm somewhere and try to scare what you think is its anterior, it promptly takes a head start from its posterior. Thereby proving false the proverb “the worm will turn.” It just does not need to turn. You are then left wondering whether the interior, i.e., the middle part, also has anything to do with decision making or direction.
Seems a little clinical to me. Perhaps we can start by agreeing that these turning worms are not, strictly speaking, earthworms. But then what are they? What comes to your mind when you hear that the worm has turned -- other than, say, a crowd of Yankees fans on Rudy Giuliani’s birthday?
*Maggots, actually, but let’s not get fussy.