Open a Can Of Worms


Saying or doing something that causes a situation to become more troublesome or complicated.

Example: One of Jessica’s coworkers smells bad. She wants to talk to him about it, but she’s worried that doing so might open a can of worms.
Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. Stir the hornet’s nest
An open cat of worms with dirt.
Once a can is opened, things get hectic! Well, sort of.

The Origin Of ‘Open a Can Of Worms’

The origin of the phrase ‘open a can of worms’ is unknown. It might have something to do with fishing, since people buy and open cans of worms to use as bait.

Indeed, if someone plans to go fishing, they probably will need some kind of bait to lure the fish in and worms can help with that. Besides worms, though, there are several kinds of bait that can be used. For example, ‘spinner-bait’ is made up of small pieces of metal that spin around as it’s reeled in. This bait causes vibrations in the water similar to that of smaller fish, which in turn might fool larger fish into taking a bite.

Anyways, back to the point. Fishing stores sell cans of worms. So a fisherman might buy one and open it later. Now, before opening it, the fisherman doesn’t have to worry about the worms inside. However, once opened, things can get a little messy because the worms are probably going to be wiggling around, twisting and turning. Basically, the worms become more troublesome to deal with after the can is opened. This might be comparable to other situations that seem manageable at first, but later something happens that causes the situation to become worse.

Enough about that. What about this expression’s age? The earliest I have seen this idiom in print is in The Edwardsville Intelligencer newspaper, November 1951:

“The question of command for Middle East defense against Soviet Aggression is still regarded as ‘a can of worms’ at General Elsenhower’s SHAPE headquarters here.”

Example Sentence(s)

  • My roommates are messy and I’m sick of it! So I told each of them that they need to start cleaning up after themselves. However, this apparently opened a can of worms because now they are arguing with each other.
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