“Making Heads or Tails of Idioms” Newsletter. Volume 1. Issue 7. Part 1 of 3.
Original Release: 3/2/2011
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What was said? She’s as happy as a clam
Did someone really say that? At brunch, Rachel or Kari said it and looked immediately at me to see if I knew what it meant.
What does it mean? Happy and content
1. a. Simple: It has been suggested that open clams give the appearance of smiling.
1. b. More Complex: Anyone who has ever hunted for clams knows they must be dug when the tide is low. They’re almost impossible to find in high tide, and it would be dangerous to venture too far out into deep water. Thus a clam is said to be quite happy at high tide, since it’s in no danger, at least from humans, of being made into a meal. The fuller version of the phrase, now rarely heard was “As happy as a clam at high water.” The phrase originated in the north-eastern states of the USA in the early 19th century. The earliest citation found is from a frontier memoir The Harpe’s Head – A Legend of Kentucky, 1833: “It never occurred to him to be discontented… He was as happy as a clam.” The expression was well-enough known in the USA by the late 1840s for it to have been included in John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary Of Americanisms – A Glossary Words Aid Phrases Usually Regarded As Peculiar To The United States, 1848: “As happy as a clam at high water,” is a very common expression in those parts of the coast of New England where clams are found.
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