Where Did The Phrase Open Up A Can Of Worms Come From?

Ever tried to fix something simple and found yourself with a whole host of new problems on your hands? Someone might say you "opened a can of worms." This common idiom means to create more issues for yourself while attempting to solve a problem, according to Today I Found Out. For instance, if you tried to fix the problem of a blown fuse by resetting your circuit breaker, only to accidentally cut off power to your whole house, someone might say that you opened a can of worms for yourself.

The phrase "open a can of worms" can be used in its entirety, or in part, as in when people refer to a situation as a "can of worms." For instance, someone might say that your family's political opinions are a can of worms that shouldn't be opened at the Thanksgiving dinner table. But, where does this interesting phrase come from, and who came up with it?

Origins of the phrase open up a can of worms

As with many long standing idioms, it's difficult to say concretely where the phrase originated. However, most experts agree that the saying was created in the United States in the 1950s, according to Today I Found Out. The term describes actual cans which were used by fishermen to hold their live bait, including worms. While some fishermen use artificial lures, others use live bait, including leeches, minnows, and worms, to attract fish (via Van Isle Marina). Live bait is more appealing to fish and tends to attract a greater variety of fish species. However, it can also be more difficult to store than artificial lures.

The phrase "can of worms" first appeared in writing in an Illinois newspaper. That paper wrote in 1951, "The question of command for Middle East defense against Soviet aggression is still regarded as "a can of worms" at General Eisenhower's SHAPE headquarters here," according to Dictionary.

Similar idioms to open up a can of worms

Though the idiom "opening up a can of worms" may present a unique visual, it doesn't have a very unique meaning. In fact, there are several other expressions with similar meanings, including the phrase "opening up Pandora's box," according to Today I Found Out. This phrase stems from the ancient Greek tale of Pandora. 

In this myth, the first woman on earth, Pandora, is given a jar by the gods containing secret items. She is told never to open up the jar, but curiosity gets the better of her and she peeks, only to discover that the jar holds all of the evils of the world, including suffering, sickness, and death. When she opens the box, the evils escape, creating a lot of problems for Pandora and all other humans. This is very similar to the way opening a can of worms can create problems for fishermen. For this reason, the phrase "opening up a can of worms" is sometimes considered the American equivalent of the Pandora idiom, according to Dictionary.