phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Don't open up a can of worms

Posted by Victoria S Dennis on December 02, 2006

In Reply to: Don't open up a can of worms posted by Bob on December 02, 2006

: : : : : : : don't open up a can of worms

: : : : : : If anyone has a better example, jump in.

: : : : : : Don't mention a certain subject. It could lead to a conversation topic that is going to be unpleasant. "He asked about her ex-husband. That opened a can of worms." Or it could refer to a course of action. "We decided to remodel the kitchen. That opened up a can of worms and we wound up remodeling the whole house."

: : : : : : From the archives:

: : : : : A visual aide at:

: : : : : : It is about the same meaning as "opening Pandora's box" (See )
: : : : I think the comparison with Pandora's box is a little misleading, primarily because Pandora's box is a cautionary tale with a quite specific history. A can of worms simply means, as has been pointed out, a tangled tale of complications that tend to wriggle when you look at them.
: : : : The "can of worms" metaphor is very widely known, and one of my favorite examples, although a bit tangential to the usual meaning, is in Rochester, N.Y. When the circumferential highway network (the outer and inner loop) was being built in Rochester as part of the Interstate Highway System, the road designers did their best to accommodate every traffic need. But one group of highway connections was so complex and confusing that the locals dubbed it the "can of worms." If you used that term in connection with the road system, everyone knew exactly which area you were talking about, and why you called it that.
: : : : SS

: : : My Scottish Grandmother was fond of describing ugly people as "He's got a face like a can of worms". Pamela

: : Also regarding roadways: "Spaghetti Junction."

: The Spaghetti Bowl: Where interstate highways 90 and 294 meet in downtown Chicago.

I think it means rather more than simply "a tangled tale of complications that tend to wriggle when you look at them". This phrase refers to Zymurgy's First Law of Evolving Systems Dynamics: "Once you open a can of worms, the only way to recan them is to use a bigger can." In other words, if something is a "can of worms", once you interfere with it you can't just put it back again the way it was; you will have to deal with it, and it won't be easy. The phrase has something of the warning quality of "Let sleeping dogs lie" or "If it ain't broke, don't mend it". (VSD)