Posted by: Jack Henry | September 10, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Clam Bake

I’m not sure about the last time I was “happy as a clam,” but I’m sure I’ve said it more than once in my life. I’m also sure that I wondered why clams were so happy. Here, in a portion of an article from Richard Lederer, is the answer to why clams are happy, in addition to the mysteries behind some other similes you may have heard. For the full article, you can see his web page here: “A Well-Turned Simile Can Make Us Happy as a Clam.”

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two essentially different objects or ideas, expressly indicated by words such as like or as, as in

  • O my love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June. O my love is like the melody that’s sweetly played in tune. –Robert Burns
  • What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    Like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore
    — And then run?

    Langston Hughes

  • Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. –Winston Groom
  • Life is like a dog sled race. If you’re not the lead dog, the scenery never changes.

I have often been asked, “In the simile happy as a clam, why are clams so happy?”

To arrive at an answer, one needs to know that the expression is elliptical; that is, something is left out. When we discover the missing part, we unlock the origin and true meaning of the phrase. As it turns out, happy as a clam is little more than half of the original saying, the full simile being happy as a clam at high tide. A clam at high tide is sensibly happy because, in high water, humans can’t capture the shellfish to mince, steam, bake, stuff, casino, or Rockefeller it, and high tide brings small yummy organisms to the mollusk.

Similarly, although we usually say, the proof is in the pudding, the full explanation is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And to harp on, meaning “to dwell on the same topic,” is in fact a shortening of the old phrase to harp on one string, which meant “to play the same note on a harp string over and over.”

Finally, we may well wonder why people say naked as a jaybird when jaybirds are covered with feathers. Here’s the first printed citation, in 1893, of naked as a jaybird: “He will have the humbug qualifications of a cowboy stripped from his poor worthless carcass so quickly that he would feel like a jaybird with his tail feathers gone.” Turns out, therefore, that a jaybird is naked only when some of its nether plumage is missing.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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