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I can't picture this: I don't understand what "rolled over on her back" mean. What does the highlighted phrase mean?

He demonstrated by holding his own arms above his head and making a swooning motion to one side. The panda did as he had done, then rolled over on her back.

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Can you picture what dogs do, when they want you to pet them on the belly?

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They look at you expectantly and then roll over on their back.

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I read this in two possible ways:

  1. The phrase "to roll over on your back" specifically means "to show submission, to 'back down' from a confrontation." The concept is that one party is intentionally de-escalating a confrontation.

    This comes from the classical explanation for dogs rolling over on their backs during play, see Submission: Its Features and Function in the Wolf and Dog by Rudolf Schenkel, in American Zoologist Vol. 7, No. 2 (May, 1967), pp. 319-329

    It's now contended that the maneuver is just a method of play, not necessarily an actual "social signal" within packs of dogs and wolves. It's believed it may even be a tactical maneuver of some kind, but the science is still out.

    At the time the phrase was coined, however, the understanding was "to go on one's back" was to submit.

  2. Literally. The man raised his hands over his head. He then made a "swooning motion" (leaned his body) to one side. The panda then raised her paws above her head, and then LITERALLY rolled onto her back (butt on ground, then rolling motion to lay on her back with her paws in the air).

    It really depends on more context than provided, however, I'm leaning toward option 2. It sounds like the man was communicating his wish that the panda roll onto it's back, and the panda understood the meaning of his pantomime and did so. Reading that phrase idiomatically (as in option one) really only applies if the context was the man's intent to dominate over the panda, and the panda's signalling of submission.

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The complement of on in a prepositional phrase is frequently a surface:

The vase is on the table.

But the complement of the preposition on can also be a body-part, the part which is contacting the surface and is supporting the body:

She stood on one foot.

She stood on her head. difficult, but not impossible :)

She lay on her side.

She lay on her back.

She lay on her stomach.

She was on her knees, looking for her door key in the grass.

She was on all fours, looking for her door key in the grass.

Sometimes on has the meaning of onto.

She rolled over onto her back.

She rolled over on her back.

That is, she assumed a position such that her back was contacting the surface below (the grass, the floor, the bed, the lounge-chair, whatever).

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