To turn up one’s toes
There are very few certainties in life. Christopher Bullock nailed it down in the Cobbler of Preston, published in 1716, when he noted, “’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes”, predating Benjamin Franklin’s more famous coining of the phrase by some seventy-three years. Some of us, though, are able to evade even taxes and so we are left with one absolute certainty, death itself. It is no wonder, therefore, that our wonderful language has myriad phrases to describe this one absolute certainty of our mortal state. Wikipedia lists 142 synonyms and I’m sure there must be more.
One such is to turn up one’s toes which is an abbreviated form of the longer to turn up one’s toes to the roots of the daisies, a reference to the dead person’s lying in a grave and mingling with the soil and the flora of the cemetery. Other variants around this rather picturesque theme include under the daisies and to push up the daisies.
One of the themes that comes through from these etymological searches is how often words and phrases that appear to have their origin in Ireland migrate to the United States. The Irish migrants may have brought with them little in the way of worldly possessions but they did not forget their often charming turn of phrase and inventive vocabulary.
English newspapers in the 1830s, for some unaccountable reason, had a thing about printing epitaphs from Irish graves. I suppose it filled up space on a slow news day. The Courier, in its edition of August 28, 1830 under the heading of From a Tombstone in Ballyporeen Churchyard, published the following lines of verse; “here at length I repose-/ And my spirit at aise is-/ with the tips of my toes,/ and the point of my nose,/ turn’d up to the roots of the daisies”. The same verse, with variations in spelling and title, appeared in a number of other journals over the following year or so. We can only conclude that its homely platitudes gave some comfort, and perhaps amusement, to the papers’ readership.
The Chartist movement later that decade gave the political stage to the working class and it is no surprise that their idioms peppered their oratory. The Manchester Guardian on May 4, 1839 included the following from an address given by a Chartist in Bolton; “..whether they must go to the Abbey side, where their ancestors lay, as the Irish say, with their toes turned up to the roots of the daisies”. It would be dangerous to take this as proof-positive of the phrase’s Irish origin but, at least, that seems to be what contemporaries thought.
It was also used adjectivally in a racy and slang-filled account of a lion hunt penned by one Captain G. Grenville Malet in the New Sporting Magazine on August 18, 1841. “We at length, by severe peppering, made him cut his lucky, and found him toes up within a few yards”. Poor lion but at least it found some sort of immortality.
When it had crossed the pond to America it had been abbreviated to to turn one’s toes up, appearing in this form in print in The Sun from Baltimore on August 12, 1852 in an account of the massacre by so-called coolies of the crew of the American ship, the Robert Browne. One coolie helped himself to the ship’s medicine chest with disastrous consequences as the paper reported; “about three hours afterwards he turned his toes up!”
Neither my toes, nor more nose for that matter, will push up the daisies, other than in granular form, as I have elected to be cremated, but if my body was laid to rest, I would find some solace in knowing I would be enriching the soil.