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The worm has turned

Posted by Smokey Stover on September 18, 2008 at 19:27

In Reply to: The worm has turned posted by Victoria S Dennis on September 18, 2008 at 16:04:

: : I have read previous posts about "the worm has turned" but they don't make sense to me. They suggest that even a lowly earthworm will attack when stepped on, which is clearly untrue.

: : It occurs to me that "worm" archaically meant "snake" which makes more sense. Why would Shakespeare say "even the smallest [earth]worm" when the size would hardly matter? "Even the smallest snake" makes more sense.

: But when Shakespeare says "The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on" he can't have meant "snake", because this passage is a list of what various animals will do, and he has mentioned "serpent" in the previous line! (VSD)

It is certainly true that an archaic meaning of "worm" is snake; so is dragon. I'm not completely sure, but I think in Wagner's Ring, one of the dragons (Fasolt and Fafner) is denoted as a "Wurm."

The treatment of the phrase in our archive includes mentions of the earlier form of the proverb, namely, "tread on a worm and it will turn." The OED glosses this as "i.e., even the humblest will resent extreme ill-treatment." Variants of this phrase occur even before Shakespeare; the OED cites examples from 1546 and 1548.

The meaning of "turn" has aroused some speculation. Surely a mere worm turning around because you stepped on his tail is not remarkable? Here's some of what the OED says s.v. turn.

"†d. To turn in opposition or defiance; ..., to recoil on. . . ." The examples cited are from c1330 onward, and include: "1548 HALL Chron., Edw. IV 199 What worme is touched, and will not once turne again? 1641 in Verney Mem. I. 199 A worme will turne agayne if it be trod on."

In the variant, "The worm turns," often preceded by "So," or "Ah," the worm, a metaphor for someone conspicuously downtrodden or humble, recoils on his tormentor or oppressor, bites back, so to speak.