The Worm Has Turned

Pete Seeger wrote a song titled Turn! Turn! Turn! and The Byrds recorded it, where they sang that everything turns and seasons turn, a Beetles song A Day in the Life says, “he didn’t notice that the lights had changed turned”, the cockroach on my plate turned my stomach, and I just turned my pancake over. Why would anyone care if the lower life form called the earthworm turns, that creature belonging to a species of any of numerous relatively small elongated soft-bodied and usually slimy animals (such as a grub, pinworm, tapeworm, shipworm, or slowworm)?  However a new study where species are ranked or judged on their longevity, just revealed that the humble earthworm has been ranked above dinosaurs, bacteria and even mankind in a new league table of the most successful 100 species on Earth.  Earthworms are ranked number one and algae, cyanobacteria, rhizobia and lactobacillus each rank higher than homo sapiens.  Another theory proposes that ancient worms maintained the planet in a manner that enabled more complex life forms to develop, breathing new life into Earth.  Out of the thirty-odd phyla in the animal kingdom, at least a third are generally referred to as worms.  If you include the more exotic, lesser-known phyla described as being ‘worm-like’, it’s well over half, so evolutionarily speaking, it might be easier to narrow down what’s not a worm.

If you look at any habitat on Earth, there’s a real good chance that you will find a worm living there.  Worms are annelids and a person who studies worms is an Oligochaeteologist.  We all know that the ‘thread’ of a screw is called the worm and that the early bird catches the worm and that some people are called bookworms, others like to worm their way to the top using an artful or devious means and still others enjoy opening up a can of worms.  Some people might try to worm their way in front of you while you are waiting on line, and there is that dreaded computer worm malware that replicates itself in order to spread, thus associating the worm with being undesired or nasty.

The worm has turned is said about a person or group of people who are retaliating or refusing to put up with agitation or mistreatment.  This phrase used when someone who has always been shown to be weak and obedient starts to behave more confidently and finally takes control of a situation.  You would say ‘the worm has turned’, if someone who has accepted a lot of bad treatment from other people without complaining suddenly decides that they are not going to accept the situation any longer.  When a person or group of people who have been treated badly for a long time suddenly become forceful and stop accepting their difficult situation, that is when the worm has turned

While the lowly worm definitely gets no respect, even the lowliest critter has its limits.  The worm turns comes from an old proverb first recorded in a 1546 collection by John Heywood, “Tread on a worm and it will turn”, meaning that even the meekest, most docile or the most defenseless creature will, when sufficiently provoked, attempt to defend itself, revolt, retaliate or get revenge if it is pushed too far.  Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, where he wrote, “The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.”  In 1864, the poet Robert Browning gave the sentiment a bit more pathos in his dramatic monologue ‘Mr. Sludge the Medium’, writing “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.

Written for Linda G. Hill Life in progress One-Liner Wednesday – June 27 prompt.

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