Cans of Worms and Bags of Knots

I’ve disappeared for a couple of weeks, having gone down the rabbit hole of starting another book – as sand through the hourglass, so go the days of our sabbatical.  

Anyhow, for no particular reason, I’ve been idly ruminating on the expression ‘a can of worms’ and discovered, via the usual suspect sources, that it may actually be Canadian in origin (although there’s some disagreement on this). Any fisherman (and I don’t know any, so this, too, is hearsay) can tell you that bait worms used to be sold in cans, and so one can literally ‘open a can of worms’ and expose a tangled mass difficult to separate and apt to wriggle out of the container.  Literalist that I am, I cannot imagine how worms remained alive in a can, but the singular charm of worms is their seductive wriggling (seductive if you’re a fish) so they must have been a teeming, heaving sexy mass of worminess when one keyed the lid off the can.  Thus the analogy to a big old tangle of circumstance or intrigue that can easily get out of hand and thus might be more trouble than it’s worth, originating in the can of worms era of the 1950s and 60s, perhaps among Canadian fishermen having a particularly slow day.

I think ‘stirring up ‘a hornets’ nest’ was the traditional idiomatic expression for more or less the same thing (and, before that, Gordian knot and Pandora’s box), the hornet idea evidently derived from the French for ‘wasps’ nest’, although the French might also say “donner un coup de pied dans une fourmilière” which means to “give a kick to the anthill” or, even better, to open “un sac de nœuds”,  “a bag of knots’ – the French are so incoherent and adorable, aren’t they?  



About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist, Italophile
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