Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Episode 175: Can of Worms Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 175: Can of Worms

Record Date: December 3, 2022

Air Date: December 7, 2022



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

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

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.

Opening Hook

Have you ever been fishing and taken worms as bait? And when you open up the container, they are crawling out of the top and even the ones who don’t try to escape are a writhing, complex mess. And you look at it and briefly worry how you are going to get the worms back in when they are all struggling to get out? Well, now I’m rethinking the appropriateness of fishing in general. But none-the-less, opening that can of worms is the topic of today’s show. 


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a can of worms, or to open a can of worms, is:


A complex and largely unexamined problem or state of affairs the investigation of which is likely to cause much trouble or scandal.

End Quote

Most online resources claim the 1950s as the origin of this one, but it was definitely alive and well in the 1940s and likely earlier. Here are two examples out of Montreal, Canada found by Barry Popik using the archives. If you aren’t familiar with Mr. Popik, check out his website, The Big Apple, at It is a fascinating etymological journey. 

On to the quotes!

October 31, 1941 The Gazette out of Montreal in Canada

This next one is talking on the ban on horse racing in the US due to WWII. 

26 December 1944, The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec),

Moving to 1946, this one is by Major General Otto L. Nelson in his book, National Security and The General Staff, available digitally on the Internet Archive. Which is good, because I wasn’t willing to pay the nearly $300US to buy one of the few remaining copies. This book is an expanded version of his Harvard thesis document which he wrote in 1940. He notes in the introduction that he wanted to revisit the thesis with many more years of experience including his time during World War II in which he helped reorganize the Army Air Forces and was eventually assigned to the War Department General Staff. He notes this book is:


…a combination of ideas and information obtained through academic research, tempered and modified by on-the-job experience and observations.

End Quote

Which, I have to admit, is pretty danged appealing to me. It is a rare person who can competently speak from the academic side as well as the practical application side.

Here is the paragraph in his book using the phrase.



This phrase definitely got picked up by governmental types. The next few uses I found of the phrase came from those types of sources. 

Here’s another one, from the Army Magazine, Vol 10 August 1959

The Oxford English Dictionary has this quote from The Times out of London, 21 Feb 1962. 


He..knew that he had opened the bidding on what is sometimes called ‘a can of worms’.

End Quote

I don’t have much to go on since I can’t find the original paper. I trust the OED to have the quote and dates correct. I just can’t find the context to go with the quote. But since this is often cited as the first attestation since it is the first one used by the OED, I thought I would include it here.

I also found it in an Irish newspaper, where an unnamed person is commenting on Olympic athletes.


They do not want to open that can of worms. It would be another pandora’s box. If they took away the medals there would be enough squalling to cause the revoking of medals 20 years back. In this business, nobody is “pure”.

End Quote

Now to my ears, this sounds like a performance enhancing drug issue. But no. Back then, olympians were only allowed to be amateurs - not professionals at their sport. And the issue at hand was manufacturers paying people to wear their clothes or use their gear at the Olympics. Since they were being paid to participate in the sport, they were no longer amateur. 

As the unnamed person said, this would be a big can of worms. You can fast forward to the 2010s and US college sports to see what a mess it was in that arena. 

I think that’s a good sampling of early usage for our phrase. Let’s jump into some more modern examples right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! 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 top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses

Shauna, Have you ever heard of the worm in a bottle of tequila?

Well, during my research for this, I found out they have never put worms in tequila. We have confused things. And I talk about that in the bonus section at the end of the behind the scenes video, which is available to Patrons of all levels. But for now, let’s get back to the show. 

1986 Book


"It has been said, and not entirely in jest, that Sydney is the most corrupt city in the western world, except of course for Newark, New Jersey, and Brisbane, Queensland."

End Quote

These were the opening words of Can of Worms, Evan Whitton's 1986 book about New South Wales. In Queensland, the 1987-1989 Fitzgerald Inquiry and some 250 subsequent trials produced the most closely documented study of political and police corruption in any Australian state.

This looks a lot like a conspiracy theory book, but I don’t know enough about Australian politics in the 80’s to know if it is good journalism or something else. 

1999 Book

Let’s move to another book of the same name. 1999’s Can of Worms by Kathy MacKel. Here is the synopsis according to Goodreads. 


Fellow citizens of the galaxy: I do not belong on this planet. I am being held against my will, trapped by ignorance and cruelty. You must save me. Take me away from this. I am desperately in need of your assistance. Please help me. Mike Pillsbury.

When a frustrated plea to the universe attracts a motley crew of aliens determined to rescue him, Mike Pillsbury decides he isn't quite ready to relinquish life on Earth. Will his visitors, who all have something at stake, let him stay?

End Quote

Mike is not an alien and his signal, accidently sent to the cosmos, opens a whole can of worms, universally speaking. It was also made into a movie in the same year, 1999 by Disney, which makes me think the book and movie were a package deal.

2004 Short Story

One of my favorite people to listen to is David Sedaris. You may know him as the guy who narrates the Christmas story where he works as an Elf at Macy’s, frequently airing on NPR. But he is an accomplished author in many rights, and his 2004 collection of essays called Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim includes one called, “Can of Worms”, in which he, his partner Hugh, and Hughes friend Ann eat at a diner. It features a can of nematodes on a space shuttle.  It’s a great example of Sedaris’ style. We’ll link to it on Patreon and on our show notes at

2005ish Band

We also have a band that morphed from 2005 to 2009 with Steven Schriver, Julien Tastet, Parick Talgorn, and Manu Iriarte. They must be somewhat important because they have their own Wikipedia page. Here’s the opening statement:


Can of Worms is a French thrash/death Metal band from Bayonne formed in 2005. The band takes its name from the expression "Opening up a can of worms". Their lyrics mostly deal with Post Apocalypse Sci Fi, with references to movies like Alien, Predator or Terminator. They define their style as nuclear thrash metal.

End Quote

If you are into that kind of thing, I’ll link to the Zombie style music video for their song “Running Dead”. It’s… exactly what you think it would be from the description of the band. 

2011 Video Game Component

Looking over to Terraria, an action-adventure sandbox game developed by Re-Logic and released in 2011, we find an interesting item. According to the Terraria Wiki: 


The Can Of Worms is a consumable grab bag-type item which can be opened by pressing ⚷ Open / Activate from within the player's inventory. It contains 5–11 different worms. Cans Of Worms can be found in chests at the Surface and Underground layers, or by tossing a Herb Bag into shimmer. 

End Quote 

I’ll close it up with the Can-O-Worms, a large capacity worm bin sold by The Worm Farm and used for composting. Here is their description.


The Can-O-Worms is the largest worm bin offered by The Worm Farm, and is an odorless, user-friendly worm composting system that allows anyone to participate in recycling and garden enrichment through composting.

End Quote

Wrap Up

I’m a guy who likes to tackle big problems. My dream job growing up was to work for a think tank where I could just ponder on big problems for a living. Okay, my original dream job was as a dinosaur. Then I wanted to be a baseball player who was an orthodontist during the off-season and an archaeologist ala Indiana Jones on the weekends. 7 year old me clearly didn’t understand any of those jobs. But teenage me wanted to ponder and think about large, complex problems. But even I recognize that opening a can of worms has to be done carefully and with purpose. And I love the thought of this phrase, with the writhing mass of worms in a tin can, representing the complexity of problems we deal with. And even our simple problems are more complex than we think. There is almost never a simple, easy answer. So I think can of worms has a bright future in the English language, because even long after we stopped putting worms in cans, we will continue to recognize our struggles are multifaceted and complex. Or at least I hope we will.


That’s about all 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


It’s Patron Poll time!

This week, we asked our Patrons, what is your favorite drinking utensil?

50% of Patrons said they had a favorite insulated tumbler, 25% said they had a favorite plastic cup, with the remaining 25% saying they didn’t have a favorite, they just use whatever is clean.

Emily shared a simple truth that I think we can all relate to… it depends on where you are:


Plastic cups at home, insulated tumbler at work. 

End Quote


This is such a complicated question for me. And Emily is absolutely right, it is dependent on the situation and location. On the one hand, I prefer drinking out of glass over plastic or metal in most cases. But sometimes my metal Yeti brand insulated cup is way better, especially for pool-side drinks or being outside in temperatures on the fringe of my comfort zone. But I also enjoy a big ole cup of cool water on a hot day. Which means I’m grabbing one of the large Zoo, Theater, or Ballpark cups I’ve acquired over the years. 

But my coolest drinking utensil, by far, is my drinking horn I got from my brother-in-law a few years back. It's even got a belt attachment so I can carry it around when I'm not drinking from it. Imagine a goat horn sconce, only you drink out of it. It's about 12 oz. I rarely use it, but there are occasions when it is the perfect drinking utensil. And I get giddy inside every time I get to bring it out!


It’s interesting you brought in your feelings about a particular cup, because our Dean of Learning Mary also went with one important to her.


I have many favorite coffee cups and tumblers, but there is one that I love most of all. My very specifically favorite insulated coffee tumbler is one that I purchased years ago at Starbucks with my daughters, who helped me pick it out while sharing coffee, Italian sodas, and treats with the grandkids. It has a mermaid’s tail wrapped around it that, if viewed from the right perspective, resembles a dragon’s tail as well. Not only is it a great cup that keeps my coffee hot and saves me time and again from spills, it reminds me of family and love.

End Quote

I have multiple favorites and I’m not sure I could choose just one. However, my favorite two drinking utensils have both been lost to time. One was a NASA rocks glass that fell to its death out of the dishwasher. The other was a custom kiln-thrown clay beautiful coffee mug. But it is gone as well. 

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!



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


Words belong to their users. 

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