If George Washington Were Alive Today He’d Turn Over in His Grave

Who made the remark? Samuel Goldwyn? Yogi Berra? William Cuffe? George Arliss? Corey Ford? Gerald Ford?

verne02Who was turning? Richard Cobden? Aunt Harriet? Jules Verne? Franklin D. Roosevelt? George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky? John Foster Dulles? Casey Stengel?

Dear Quote Investigator: Samuel Goldwyn and Yogi Berra were both famous for constructing humorous phrases. Their solecisms and malapropisms often exhibited entertaining absurdist logic. The following comments have been credited to Goldwyn and Berra respectively:

1) If Franklin D. Roosevelt were alive now, he’d turn in his grave.
2) If Casey Stengel were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.

Remarks of the type above were probably constructed via the inadvertent blending of common expressions like these:

1) If she knew about it she would turn in her grave.
2) If she were alive today she would disapprove.

Would you please explore the origin of this family of jests?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this comical expression found by QI was printed in an 1879 novel titled “The Honourable Ella: A Tale of Foxshire” by William Ulick O’Connor Cuffe, 4th Earl of Desart. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“My dear Harry, you don’t understand the rudiments of political economy. If Cobden were alive to hear all the twaddle of the free-traders now he would turn in his grave—at least, I mean he’d be confoundedly disgusted.

The author Cuffe highlighted the witticism by allowing his character to recognize that the figurative language was incongruous.

In 1898 “The Leisure Hour” magazine published an article about Irish humor with the following material: 2

It was an Irish moralist who rebuked a widow in the words, “If your husband were alive, your conduct would make him turn in his grave”; a speech which recalls the Irishman’s encomium of Kean—”He acts the dead man to the very life” . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1927 the English actor and filmmaker George Arliss released an autobiography titled “Up the Years from Bloomsbury”. In the following passage a friend of the author’s criticized a performance company that he had joined. The dialog contained an extended variant of the joke: 3 4

“What?” I said. “Don’t you like this company?”

“No,” said he, “I don’t. If Aunt Harriet saw one of these performances, she’d turn in her grave.” (Joseph always got theatrical after he’d been in deep thought.)

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted; “your Aunt Harriet is alive and well. How can she turn in her grave?”

“Well,” said Joseph doggedly, “she would turn in her grave if she were dead. George, you’ve got to leave this show.”

In 1940 “The New Yorker” magazine printed a short item with a statement from a radio commentator named Boake Carter: 5

[From a Boake Carter broadcast]

Were that great French dreamer and writer, Jules Verne, alive today he would turn over in his grave.

In May 1947 the energetic quotation collector Bennett Cerf printed an instance in his column in the “Saturday Review of Literature”. The speaker was not explicitly identified, but the context implied that Samuel Goldwyn was the top candidate: 6

The latest remarks attributed to Hollywood’s most famous dialecticians are “If FDR was alive, he’d turn in his grave”; “Those Indians are straight off a reservoir”; “She’s nothing but a gangster’s mole”; and “Send the check to my house; care of me.”

In October 1947 an Associated Press article reprinted a comment from another news organization with an instance of the jest. The attribution to Goldwyn was convoluted: 7

The left-of-center Reynolds News said the “atmosphere” of America was such that “it takes courage even to express the mildest liberal ideas” adding:

“As Sam Goldwyn might have (and probably has) said: ‘If Roosevelt were alive today, he would turn over in his grave’.”

In 1954 the “Reader’s Digest” printed a piece by humorist Corey Ford about unintentionally comical language which Ford termed “skid-language”: 8

Skid-language is like a time bomb; it ticks away quietly in your subconscious, and suddenly, a few minutes later, your mind explodes with the abrupt realization that something about the remark you just heard was a trifle askew.

“If George Washington were alive today,” Bunny told me once, “he’d turn over in his grave.” On another occasion she opened a debate with the challenging sentence, “For your information, let me ask you a question.”

In 1959 an unidentified speaker at a civic club suggested that a revivified Abraham Lincoln might spin from dissatisfaction: 9

A Rotary speaker — not In the Beatrice club — discussing the State of the Union said: “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d turn over in his grave.”

In 1960 “The New York Times” published a story about orchestra conductors titled “Tyrants—and Gods—of the Podium”. An unnamed conductor employed the jest: 10

One man, who specialized in radio work, may not be considered the equal of Toscanini with a baton, but he is nevertheless a legend. It was he who stopped the orchestra and said, “If Tchaikovsky was alive he’d turn over in his grave.” It was he who wanted to know, “Who’s sitting in that empty chair?”

In 1963 a follower of German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer employed an instance: 11

A cynical supporter of Adenauer’s party remarked: “If John Foster Dulles were alive, he would turn in his grave!”

In 1967 Gerald Ford who later because President of the U.S. used an instance of the joke: 12

There was the case a few weeks back of House minority leader Jerry Ford of Michigan, an eminently stable soul, who became so upset when majority leader Carl Albert remarked that if Abraham Lincoln were alive today he’d be a Democrat that Ford blurted out “if Abraham Lincoln were alive today to hear that remark he’d turn over in his grave.”

In 1993 a Professor of Business History at Harvard who wrote an opinion piece in “The New York Times” attributed an instance to Yogi Berra: 13

As Yogi Berra once said of Casey Stengel, if he were alive today he’d be turning over in his grave.

In conclusion, the earliest instance of this comical line located by QI was written by William Cuffe, 4th Earl of Desart in 1879. The uneasy grave belonged to English manufacturer and free trade exponent Richard Cobden. The remark has been employed by many people during the past 136 years. However, the linkages to Samuel Goldwyn and Yogi Berra are not well supported.

Image Notes: Illustration of Jules Verne from “The American Educator”, Page 3761; Editor in Chief Ellsworth D. Foster; 1922 edition in Google Books database. Illustration of George Washington from “The New Student’s Reference Work for Teachers, Students and Families”, Volume 5, Page 2048; 1919 edition in Google Books database.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Lighter whose inquiry and comments about the idiom “turn over in one’s grave” led QI to reactivate research on this topic, formulate this question, and perform this exploration. In Memoriam: For my brother Stephen who enjoyed yogiisms.)

Update History: On May 11, 2015 a citation for the 1927 edition of “Up the Years from Bloomsbury” was added to accompany the 1938 reprint edition.


  1. 1879, The Honourable Ella: A Tale of Foxshire by The Earl of Desart (William Ulick O’Connor Cuffe, 4th Earl of Desart), Volume 1 of 3, Quote Page 173, Hurst and Blackett, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1897-8, The Leisure Hour, Irish Wit and Humor As Shown in Proverbs and Bulls by Elsa D’Esterre-Keeling, Quote Page 709, Column 2, Paternoster Row, London. (HathiTrust) link link
  3. 1927, Up the Years from Bloomsbury: An Autobiography by George Arliss, Quote Page 85, Publisher by Blue Ribbon Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1938 (Copyright 1927), Up the Years from Bloomsbury: An Autobiography by George Arliss, Quote Page 85, Published by Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1940 September 07, The New Yorker, (Filler item), How’s That Again? Department [From a Boake Carter broadcast], Quote Page 20, Column 3, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  6. 1947 May 10, Saturday Review of Literature, Volume 30, Number 19, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Start Page 5, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published by The Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1947 October 27, San Diego Union, British Deplore Film Red Probe (Associated Press), Quote Page 2A, Column 2, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1954 June, Reader’s Digest, Volume 64, Are You a Skid-Talker? by Corey Ford, (Article subtitle: How to puzzle friends and confuse everybody), Start Page 85, Quote Page 85, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1959 March 27, Beatrice Daily Sun, The Upper Room, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Beatrice, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1960 November 27, New York Times, Tyrants—and Gods—of the Podium by Harold C. Schonberg, Start Page SM36, Quote Page SM72, New York. (ProQuest)
  11. 1963 February 12, The Ottawa Journal, Opposition Mounts Over Adenauer’s Paris-Bonn Policy by Edwin Roth (Special Journal Correspondence), Quote Page 7, Column 4, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1967 19 May, Los Angeles Times, Mangled Meaning, Quote Page 7, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  13. 1993 May 02, New York Times, Deficit Lessons: Hamilton the Hero . . . by Thomas K. McCraw, Quote Page F13, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)