Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Episode 143: Happy as a Clam Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 143: Happy as a Clam

Record Date: January 30, 2022

Air Date: February 2, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week I decided to cover another shiny, happy phrase. 

So Dan … are you ready to dive in? 

Alright, today let’s find out what it means to be as happy as a clam! 


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, as happy as a clam means:


well pleased, quite contented. 

End Quote

It is listed as a colloquial phrase from the United States.

This expression is used to say that a person or animal is generally feeling rather positive about their life or to say that a person or animal is very pleased with a particular situation or set of circumstances. 

It is more often used situationally. 

There are two main theories about this phrase. One idea is that the curve of a clam and the line where the two sides meet is reminiscent of a person smiling. In the early to mid 1800s, the phrase shut your clam-shell seems to have been popular. In this case, the term clam-shell is referring to the mouth. 

I think I have some vague memories of hearing or reading this somewhere, but it isn’t anything that I know of to be very commonly used these days.

I did not indeed research the term clam-shell as a synonym for the human mouth, so we can skip this bunny trail. However, since it ties into one theory that popped up on a few phrases websites, I didn’t want to leave it out. Because of the resemblance to the human mouth and that when making that connection, it then appears to be always smiling, some people think maybe this is why we say happy as a clam

Well, that’s a fun little idea, but we’ve spent enough time on it. 

A second leading theory comes from a rejoinder that is frequently added to to the phrase which is:  

Happy as a clam - at high tide. 

Other versions include: 

As happy as a clam at full tide

Contented as a clam at high tide

Happy as a clam in the mud at full tide

…and others. 

This theory essentially states that clams are unable to be dug up and eaten during full tide, especially when sunken into the mud… free from predators and the threat of death, clams are oh so happy. 

All I can do is imagine a person who has been swimming for awhile, trying to hold their breath and get down to these clams and dig them out of some sticky mud… in their head, they’re yelling “I hope you’re happy!” at clams. 

We are rather anthropocentric. So it would be fitting for us to decide that clams are experiencing a human emotion about just surviving and existing without becoming someone’s food.

The first time I found this in print was in the year 1833 Volume 8 of Atkinson's Casket. The digital copy is available online thanks to the New York Public Library. 

I will be reading a very slightly altered version to remove terms that are not appropriate. This doesn’t change the meaning or the joke in any way. Here we go, quote: 

“​​A man being overtaken a shower, sought shelter from the rain in the house of a fiddler. On entering, he found the man in the only dry spot in the house —the chimney corner—as happy as a clam, fiddling most merrily. Our traveller tried to keep dry, but the rain came from all quarters. “Jack," said he, “why don’t you fix your bouse?" ** 0, cause *er rain I can't,'* “But Why don't you fix it when it don't rain? * —“0, when *er don't rain 'er dont need no fixing!”

End quote 

Only a year later, in 1834, The Harpe's Head. Kentucky. A Tale  By James HALL (Judge of the Circuit Court of Illinois.) was released. Quote: 

-End quote 

Also in 1834 Harvardiana, a periodical published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States by James Munroe and Co, included the phrase. One excerpt reads, quote:

That peculiar degree of satisfaction, usually denoted by the phrase ‘as happy as a clam’.

End quote 

1838’s The Knickerbocker, published by Peabody, is a collection of stories, poems, songs and so on. One section was titled Clams! 

Here is a little from that piece, quote:

End quote 

In 1844, Ann Stephens’ work High life in New York was published under the pseudonym Jonathan Slick. An excerpt from the book includes, quote:

They seemed as happy as clams in high water.

End quote

The same story about the rain and fixing the house was included in a series of jokes in the Saturday, January 20, 1849 edition of the Monmouthshire Beacon. This publication was listed as an “ADVERTISER FOR THE COUNTIES OF MONMOUTH, GLOUCESTER, HEREFORD, AND THE PRINCIPALITY OF WALES”.

Here is another quick joke from the page, 


Why is money like the weather now-a-days ?—> Because it dew in the morning and mist before night. 

Rather clever, I thought. In addition to being a fun, cheesy joke, this also tells us where the phrase happy as a clam was in the lexicon in the 1830s to 1850s. It was in use… and being added to the funnies section of newspapers. 

So we’ve seen examples of different versions of the phrase within just a few decades. It seemingly just appeared out of nowhere. There aren’t a bunch of newspapers telling us what it means, how to use it, or where it came from. It just popped up.  

In the Toronto Daily Mail, out of Ontario, Canada, from the May 25, 1894 edition, we see it used in an ad. Quote: 

End quote 

From May 27, 1921 in the Vashon Island news-record, out of Vashon, Washington, is another interesting ad spot. 

Next up is a little poem in the Saturday 18 March 1950 edition of the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail out of Hartlepool, Durham, England.

This 1950 piece was the last item before we get to the really modern uses. But before we do that, we’d like to take a moment to give a shoutout to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

And speaking of our patreon, we’d love your support! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the leader of all our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

Whatever your budget, you can help create Bunny Trails week after week to help continue this educational artform. 

We are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. That’s

Modern Uses


Before we get to the modern uses, we have one more thing to announce. Every Monday on the Patreon feed, we will be hosting a thread on what everyone is reading. This is your opportunity to talk with your fellow word nerds about the great stuff you are reading, have read, or are hoping to read. Dan and I will be posting there, too. And the best part of all is it is free to participate. You don’t need to be a patron to join. You do need a free Patreon account, but that’s an easy thing to get. And you should, too, because then you can see all of our free posts like on Wednesdays when we link to all the cool sources from the show or now, on Mondays, when we host a book chat about whatever you are reading. Join us today! 

In 1994, the book Happy As a Clam: And 9,999 Other Similes by Larry Wright was first printed. From the publisher, quote: 

Similes are used to add color to writing, to pique readers' interest, and to provide entertainment. They make speech more illustrative and create pictures in people's minds. Ten thousand similes are packed inside this book. Arranged in almost 2,000 categories - such as hot, dumb, hard, drunk, lovely - you are sure to find the simile you are looking for, from as abandoned as a ghost town to zigzagged like a race car.

End quote 

The album What A Zoo! • by Joanie Leeds and The Nightlights • was released in 2011

The song Happy as a Clam includes these lyrics, quote: 

You’re as happy as a clam; you’re in puppy love, you lucky duck.

When there are lovebirds soon enough, if you’re quiet as a mouse you’ll get stuck.

So stay a busy bee, always talk about the elephants in the room.

Or you’ll end up in the doghouse if you’re stubborn as a mule.

End quote 

We’d love to hear from you about other songs, books or shows where you’ve heard or seen happy as a clam, so let us know on Twitter where we are @bunnytrailspod!


Seas the day 

Wrap up...

Recently, I found myself outside on a slightly chilly day, sitting in the warm sun, and enjoying a bottle of a delicious and bold dark red wine with my best friend. We were on a balcony overlooking a beautiful vineyard. It was a perfect afternoon. That feeling of being relaxed, content, safe, enjoying myself … just … feeling good… is how I imagine the phrase. And in that context, I think each one of us deserves to be as happy as a clam. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page!


Poll time! 

In a recent poll, we asked Patrons, “You are only allowed to play one kind of game for the rest of your life. Which do you choose?”

This one was evenly split between most of the options, so rather than declare a winner will give you a snapshot of comments. 

Emily made the case for Booklet Games saying 


Because they can be played offline and can be done on your own or with others. I have childhood memories of doing crossword puzzles with my mom.

End Quote

Jan would opt for Computer games


I enjoy the others, but have had a computer since I was about 7 and games always made up a big part of having one.

End Quote

Personally, I went with card games for the same reason Emily went with booklet games. They can be done offline and the variety lets me do it on my own or with others. And I have great childhood memories with card games like gin, rummy, spades, hearts, and pinochle. But I love all of the other categories, too. I play a ton of sudoku on flights. I still get in a good amount of Skyrim and Minecraft every month, I play DnD once a week, and I play a dice game called Quixx several times a month as well. So I love all the categories. 


Emily shared that she has memories of doing crossword puzzles with her mom. 

While I didn’t choose this as my favorite - an ask that seems impossible, by the way - I do appreciate this same thing of booklet games. I do crosswords almost every single day before bed. They are perfect at the airport or during car travel and they keep my brain active and engaged. I love brainy games. 


Before this one, I hosted a podcast where the first half was about preparing yourself for the disasters of the world - large and small - and the second half was reviewing games you could play when sheltering in place. I could talk about games all day long. But in the interest of time: Shauna - give me two board games you really love.


It is so impossible to select favorites. Two great tabletop games: 

Carcassonne - Fun to play as a small group, doesn’t involve cards, and since you have just one map piece to place and a couple of options for meeples per turn - meeples are the tokens representing each player - it simplifies the game a little. Players might feel like they won’t be able to win, but they can’t actually get kicked out of the game… so they get to play to the end. 

Forbidden Sky - you get to connect circuits, work as a team, and build a cute launch pad for the rocket you will all escape on - which, once complete, makes fun little rocket sounds and flashes a few lights. With the right group, this can be a really fun game. And it can serve as a pretty decent team-building activity for teens. Just be sure there is someone to help moderate in case they need it! 

In my family games can get just a tad competitive. I occasionally get a little heated while playing, but I love it anyway! 


If you want to join our polls, head over to our Patreon where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about!

And don’t forget to join us on the weekly “What are you reading?” thread, available for free on our Patreon,


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users

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