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Can of Worms – What it Means to Open a Can of Worms

What it Means to Open a Can of Worms

Can of WormsOpening a can of worms is an American idiom.  It means to say or do something to cause a situation to become more troublesome or complicated.

Metaphorically speaking, to open a can of worms is to examine or attempt to solve some problem.  However, it inadvertently complicates the issue and creates even more trouble. Literally, opening a can of worms can result in, or create more trouble than you bargained for. Ask any fisherman!  It is quite likely that the phrase was originally inspired by real fishermen dealing with a very real can of worms.

The exact origin and first usage are not definite or clear-cut.  However, many dictionaries and linguists agree that the phrase originated in the U.S. in the early 1950s.  The phrase is a clear reference to a container of live worms used by fishermen.  In the days before plastic and styrofoam containers, bait shops commonly sold earthworms and other live bait to fishermen in metal cans with handles and lids.  Everything was great until you needed a worm.  Then, just imagine dozens of squiggly worms all trying to escape at once with the lid removed.

Can of Worms – and other Idioms

Idioms exist in every language. They are words or phrases that convey meaning but aren’t meant to be taken literally. For example, you could say someone opened a can of worms.  You don’t literally mean they took the lid off a can full of squiggly worms. Rather, you are using an idiom to convey a different message entirely.  You are instead saying that some simple action caused a situation to become troublesome and complicated.

Idioms can’t be deduced merely by studying the words in the phrase. For example, take the phrase cold feet.  If taken literally, you would think that someone with cold feet needs to take a hot bath or put on woolly socks. But, after living with groups of people, you quickly pick up their slang expressions and idioms.  You realize to get cold feet really means having second thoughts about something.

Opening a Can of Worms 

Fishermen use live bait so it wriggles on the hook and attracts fish with its movement and smell. However, taking the lid off the container is a great way to lose your bait. With the lid off, worms will often either escape or just generally make it difficult to get them all back in the can.  To make matters worse, you have to deal with the problem of putting the lid back in place without squishing worms or cutting them in half.  So, once you innocently open a can to extract a single worm, you’ve got a bigger problem on your hands.  Suddenly, your biggest problem is no longer about catching fish. It’s about catching your bait that’s trying to wriggle away.

Can of Worms vs Pandora’s Box

Linguists believe that the expression opening a can of worms is actually a more modern, Americanized version of the expression to open Pandora’s Box.

Pandora’s box is a modern metaphor.  The phrase refers to endless complications or trouble as a result of a single, simple miscalculation. Pandora’s story comes from ancient Greek mythology.  Pandora was a curse on mankind as retribution after Prometheus stole fire and gave it to humans. Zeus had Hermes fashion the first human woman with his hammer. Hermes made her lovely as a goddess.  She possessed the gift of speech to tell lies, and a clever, yet mischievous nature.  She was to be the first of a race of human women.

Then Zeus sent this beautiful, mischievous gift to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Prometheus advised his brother to never accept gifts from Zeus. But, Epimetheus saw Pandora and was astonished by her beauty.  In spite of his brother’s warning, he accepted her as his wife.  Now, in the house of Epimetheus, there was a jar that was given as a gift from the gods.  In some versions, it too was a gift from Zeus.  Because of her insatiable curiosity, Pandora lifted the lid and peeked inside. Out from the jar flew all the illnesses and hardships that Zeus and the gods had hidden inside. These trials and hardships escaped from the jar to afflict men and women forevermore.  (Source: thoughtco.com)

So you see, opening a can of worms is similar to opening Pandora’s box.  However, in terms of damage, Pandora’s box is a can of worms on steroids!

What is a Metaphor?

metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true.  However, it helps explain an idea or make a comparison.  It equates two things not because they actually are the same, but for the sake of comparison or symbolism. Metaphors are used in poetry, literature, and anytime someone wants to add some color to their language.

A lot of common expressions are metaphors.  This includes phrases like a river of tears or calling someone a dog or a donkey. These figurative expressions are widespread.  So much so, we rarely stop to think about them.  But, unless you literally think that someone has fur and a tail, you’re using a metaphor when you call that person a dog or a donkey.

Opening a Can of Worms vs Stirring a Hornet’s Nest

To stir up a hornet’s nest is to do something that makes a lot of people very upset and angry. It means to create, provoke, or trigger a dangerous, troublesome, or complicated situation.  It also implies that you provoke or instigate a lot of angry and offended reactions.

This is different than innocently opening a can of worms.  The worms will be troublesome to keep in the can once the lid is off.  But, that is an unintended consequence.  You can’t go fishing with a worm on the hook if you don’t take the lid off to get the worm. Stirring a hornet’s nest is a deliberate provocation.  There is prior knowledge the hornets are going to be angry and respond.  Most probably, with a very nasty sting or two.

Examples of Use

  • No one in sales and marketing wanted to be a part of that project knowing that it was a can of worms.
  • Giving a small raise opened a can of worms at the firm because now everyone wants a salary increase.
  • The routine audit opened a can of worms revealing corruption, pilfering, and fraud.
  • Dinner table discussions can really become a can of worms, especially if you aren’t tactful.

Up Next: What Happened to B Batteries?

B batteries
Eveready A and B Batteries for
Vintage Hearing Aids, By Joe Haupt,
License CC BY 2.0

Do you need a new battery?  You can take a trip to your local hardware store and choose from a wide range.  There are AA, AAA, C, and D batteries. However, there are no B batteries to be found.  Why is that? Well, the answer is that B batteries still exist, but have more or less disappeared, especially in the U.S.

Since the invention of the battery, a wide variety has been created for a wide range of uses.  However, each application required different sizes, shapes, voltages, and storage capacities.  Initially, the manufacturer would choose whatever name they wished.  As a result, early batteries were referred under a variety of different names.   Eventually, it became apparent there needed to be an industry-wide standard.  The lack of international or even national standards during WWI presented problems for the military.

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