If someone says, “you have opened a can of worms,” it means you said or did something that caused a situation to become more troublesome or complicated.
Example: One of Jessica’s coworkers smells bad. She wants to talk to him about this ongoing problem, but she’s worried that doing so might open a can of worms; so she spoke to HR instead.
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.”
- My roommates are messy, so I finally told them to start cleaning up after themselves. However, this apparently opened a can of worms because now they are arguing with each other.
- Someone was rude to me at the store, but I didn’t want to stir the hornets nest so I let it go.
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