Open a can of worms
When I was very young there was a popular TV show on ITV – the first programme to offer cash prizes – called Take Your Pick! Contestants had to navigate a quick fire round where the answers to questions were yes and no. The denouement featured a round where contestants on answering a question correctly were invited either to take the money (a guaranteed amount) or to open a box which contained a mystery prize. The prize could exceed the value of the cash on offer or, equally, be of little value. What fun but life was more innocent in those days.
Opening something always brings with it a frisson of excitement. After all, you can never be quite sure what is inside. In Western culture the perils of opening something owe their origins to the Greek myth of Pandora. She was the first woman on Earth and was made by Hephaestus out of earth and water. Her name means “all gifts” and reflected the fact that many of the other gods and goddesses added their own particular flourishes to her character. Pandora was given a large jar – the Greek word used by Hesiod, pithos, was mistranslated by Erasmus of Rotterdam into Latin as box and so it has stuck – which she was told on no account should she open.
One of the characteristics that the gods had bestowed on Pandora was an irrepressible curiosity and despite the warnings she could not resist the temptation of opening the stopper of the jar. All the evils of the world flew out – sickness, old age, suffering, toiling and death – and by the time she was able to put the stopper back on again, all that was left in the jar was Elpis, hope. The earliest example of Elpis being in the room, perhaps.
When we use the phrase opening a can of worms we mean that we are about to investigate something complicated, the outcome of which is uncertain and probably going to cause some kind of trouble. The earliest example of its use in a metaphorical sense seems to have been around the middle of the last century. The Ironwood Daily Globe of Michigan reported in 1951, “the question of command for Middle East defence against Soviet aggression is still regarded as a can of worms at General Eisenhower’s SHAPE headquarters here”. Its usage grew like topsy and in time it became a bit of a journalistic cliché.
So were there ever any actual cans of worms? Anglers like to tempt their victims with a juicy member of the oligochaeta subclass – worms to you and me. In the days before plastic and other synthetic materials it seems that cans with handles and lids were used to convey the worms to the river bank. Leona Dalrymple in 1914 in her prize-winning novel Diane of the Green Van, described the use of a can to carry worms thus, “thoroughly out of patience, Diane presently unjointed her rod, emptied her can of worms upon the bank and returned to camp”. Once the lid was off, the problem for the angler was to stop the bait from heading for freedom. So, the opening of the lid presented you with a problem. A practical problem became a figurative description for a whole range of problems.
Both opening Pandora’s box and a can of worms sets in motion a train of events which cannot easily be undone. If there is a distinction in the usage, perhaps the can of worms presents us with something annoying or too complicated whereas Pandora’s box delivers something much worse.