phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Don't open up a can of worms

Posted by Smokey Stover on December 02, 2006

In Reply to: Don't open up a can of worms posted by Victoria S Dennis 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)

Is it time for the big guns? Okay, here's the take of the OED.

"c. In colloq. phr. (to open) a can of worms, (to address) a complex and largely unexamined problem or state of affairs the investigation of which is likely to cause much trouble or scandal.
1962 Times 21 Feb. 12/4 He..knew that he had opened the bidding on what is sometimes called 'a can of worms'. 1969 N. Dakota Law Rev. XLV. 215 Counsel can..better comprehend..the domestic can-of-worms that appears in so many delinquency and neglect cases. 1973 Times 22 May 16/5 Mr Berger has opened, in the old American phrase, a fine can of worms. He is suggesting that an impeached President, should he be found guilty, could appeal to the Supreme Court. 1976 L. BERNSTEIN Unanswered Question vi. 418 There are so many of those 'underlying strings'..waiting to be tied up; so many cans of worms have been opened, and a lot of those slippery little beasts are still wriggling around. 1984 A. PRICE Sion Crossing vii. 137 Oliver isn't up to this sort of thing. And this is my can of worms."

I note that the first citation is from an English source, The Times. Another quote from The TImes qualifies the expression as 'the old American phrase.' I take this as validation of my feeling that this is an Americanism, Pamela's grandmother notwithstanding.
It's true that you can read the exp ression as a warning, "Don't go there." But I think I've seen it more often as a remark on what has already happened when people DID go there. In other words, I would expect to see "He opened a can of worms" more often than "Don't open that can of worms." You do see, from time to time, "I don't want to open that can of worms." As for "Let sleeping dogs lie," let's not mix metaphors. We're talking worms, not dogs. And much as I hate to correct the English of an English speaker par excellence, the aphorism, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is an Americanism. We Americans don't say "mend" unless we're talking about socks. (Okay, that's an exaggeration; we Americans exaggerate.)
I trust everyone knows about zymurgy. It's the branch of chemistry concerned with fermentation.