Tag Archives: William Cuffe

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.

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  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