Twists & Turns of Phrase
A person who opens a can of worms tries to solve a problem, but in doing so creates a lot of new unanticipated complications.
For some reason I always see the image of the snake-in-a-can gag whenever I hear this turn of phrase, but this is clearly just my unusual brain at work. So I wonder just where this saying does come from…
Origins: Most sources agree that this phrase is likely tied to the difficulty folks have getting the lid back on a can of bait worms once it’s been opened—just when you’ve tucked one worm inside another three make a break for it.
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary dates this turn of phrase to 1962 and, like many other sources, compares the phrase to the myth of Pandora’s box. Although the worms metaphorically represent tribulations and difficulties, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to compare them to the evils that flew out of Pandora’s box, and I’m pretty confident none of the worms represent humanity’s hope.