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Happy as a clam

Q From Judy Austin, Idaho: Do you have any idea of the origins of the phrase happy as a clam? I’ve heard it and used it for years without wondering just how one would determine that a clam is happy — my acquaintance with the mollusc is strictly through consumption.

A Near that stage in their lives, only the most masochistic of molluscs could be expected to experience anything but a sense of imminent dread. Even the most comfortable of clams, however, can hardly be called the life and soul of the party. All they can expect is a watery existence, likely at any moment to be rudely interrupted by a man with a spade, followed by conveyance to a very hot place.

John G Saxe put it better, or at any rate more poetically, in his Sonnet to a Clam, in the late 1840s:

Inglorious friend! most confident I am
Thy life is one of very little ease;
Albeit men mock thee with their similes,
And prate of being “happy as a clam!”
What though thy shell protects thy fragile head
From the sharp bailiffs of the briny sea?
Thy valves are, sure, no safety-valves to thee,
While rakes are free to desecrate thy bed,
And bear thee off, — as foemen take their spoil,
Far from thy friends and family to roam;
Forced, like a Hessian, from thy native home,
To meet destruction in a foreign broil!
Though thou art tender, yet thy humble bard
Declares, 0 clam! thy case is shocking hard!

The saying is very definitely American, hardly known elsewhere. The fact is, we’ve lost its second half, which makes everything clear. The full expression is happy as a clam at high tide or happy as a clam at high water. Clam digging has to be done at low tide, when you stand a chance of finding them and extracting them. At high water, clams are comfortably covered in water and so able to feed, comparatively at ease and free of the risk that some hunter will rip them untimely from their sandy berths. I guess that’s a good enough definition of happy.

The saying in its shortened form is first recorded in the 1830s, though it is almost certainly a lot older; by 1848 the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia could say that the expression in its short form “is familiar to every one”.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 20 Jul. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 20 July 2002.