I came across this one headlne:

"It’s turtles all the way down in the fossil record"

I read a part of the article but couldn't put together the pieces and rewrite them in a way that would be clearer. It sounds like 'turtles' is being used as verb. What does the author mean by this title?

  • 3
    Have you tried googling the phrase? Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 14:33
  • 3
    Can you please cite your source?
    – Joachim
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 14:45
  • Turtles couldn't be a verb there, because the only verb form that could work there is a gerund or participle, and turtles is clearly not a gerund or participle. Try it with a different verb and you will see: "It's eats all the way down"? That doesn't make any sense. Only "it's eating" or "it's eaten" would make work.
    – stangdon
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 15:09
  • You should post the origin: It’s Turtles All the Way Down in the Fossil Record How smushed shells could help to resolve paleontological mysteries.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 21:44
  • In English, we often use that structure: It was bad waves for me all afternoon. [surfer] Also, a fossil record can be deep under the soil, which is why they say down. It suggest the fossil record is in deep soil.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 21:47

1 Answer 1


It's a cosmology/archaeology/physics joke. It is often said that some mythology (e.g. Hindu) states that the world is flat and supported on the back of a 'World Turtle'. When the question is asked 'What supports the turtle?' a frequent answer is 'Another turtle.'. The idea is that each turtle is on top of another, and however far you 'go down', there will always be one more turtle. This is an example of the idea of 'infinite regress'. You can see, maybe, that this idea might be linked to fossils.

In physics, at one time people thought that atoms were the smallest building blocks of matter. Then it was discovered that atoms are made up of smaller particles, and then later that these particles are made up of even smaller ones. Possibly further levels exist. A joking way of responding to that might be 'maybe it's turtles all the way down'.

The New York Times article is about fossil turtle shells. Fossils are often deep [down] in the ground. That publication is fond of headlines containing apt word-play.

Turtles all the way down (Wikipedia)

  • 1
    fossils are often deep in the soil. "All the way down" refers to that.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 21:45

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