What is "Open a Can of Worms"?


To "Open a Can of Worms” means to start something slated to be difficult and not in one’s control. "Open a Can of Worms” is a well-known phrase that means that one is getting into a more complex area which may have deeper implications. In simple conversational terms it would mean to broach a topic that you had no intentions of going deep into. In a discussion to "Open a Can of Worms” would mean introducing a new set of complications to the problem. The information in the “can of worms’ is regarded as confusing, difficult and wriggly which only further increases the problem.

What is the origin of the phrase "Open a Can of Worms?"

The phrase  is essentially of American or Canadian origin which came to be used in the 1950s. It was common for bait shops to stock cans of worms for fishermen who always found it difficult to close a can of worms once it was opened. “Can of worms” is a noun phrase used in the singular while the plural form is “cans of worms.” The phrase “Open a Can of Worms” is used idiomatically to refer to a complex or troublesome situation that has arisen due to a certain action or decision taken that only increases the existing problems. The phrase “kettle of fish” or the metaphor “pandora’s box” is used synonymously with the phrase “can of worms”

How is the phrase "Open a Can of Worms" used as a metaphor?

To "Open a Can of Worms” would mean to reveal a messy situation that would be exposed to everyone. Taken literally a can of worms would contain numerous wriggling worms which would be squirming all over the place when opened. It would be a difficult task to get all the worms back in the can. When applied to life, it means that many times one says things which cannot be reversed and gets opened like the can of worms impacting situations and people. The idiom to "Open a Can of Worms" is a metaphor for creating, unintentionally, a number of problems while resolving to solve the main problem. It is obvious then that the situation that is created by the can of worms is going to be unpleasant and troublesome.

What are some examples of usage?

  • I offered to help my friend with her job- hunting, but it was like opening a can of worms. Not only was the task difficult, I had to deal with a whole lot of her emotional problems too. How I wished afterwards that I had left her alone.
  • The phrase "Open a Can of Worms” can also be used without the word ‘open’ as in “can of worms” which would mean the same. For example: The members seemed skeptical about their leader’s plan of action, it suggested a can of worms for them.
  • The five team committee appointed for the investigation of the telecom scam opened a can of worms.
  • When the boss addressed Joe as the most efficient leader of the organization, it opened up a can of worms with the senior employees.
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