Phrase: happy as a clam; happy as a clam at high water

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon Nov 18 01:03:12 UTC 2013

>>Happy as a clam at high tide.

[Begin comment by LH]

--i.e. when you can't rake it into your bucket. This has become opaque,
yielding "happy as a clam"  When I ask my students on the origin of "happy
as a clam", the majority opinion (among those who are familiar with the
simile) is that clams look as though they're smiling.

[End comment by LH]

LH's recounting of the origin of "happy as a clam" is plausible, and that
hypothetical origin story has been widely disseminated as a consensus

Michael Quinion has an entry: Happy as a clam

Barry Popik has an entry: As happy as a clam

Gary Martin has an entry: As happy as a clam

However, database searches suggest that "happy as a clam" appeared before
"happy as a clam at high water" or "happy as a clam at high tide." There is
a natural counter-hypothesis, I think. The phrase "happy as a clam" was
crafted first. The phrases "happy as a clam at high water" and "happy as a
clam at high tide" were constructed later. Indeed, their construction was
motivated by a desire to provide an explanatory framework for the first

Barry lists a cite in 1833 for "happy as a clam" and a cite in 1836 for
"happy as a clam at high water". Further below I give a citation for "sad
as a clam" in 1828 that might have been a humorous reversal of "happy as a

If "happy as a clam" came first then what explanation can be offered for
the simile? Here is a citation in 1838 that attempted to elucidate the
phrase without mentioning the high water variant.

[ref] 1838 March, The Knickerbocker; Or, New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume
11, Number 3, Clams! by J.P.P., Start Page 206, Quote Page 208, New York.
(Google Books full view)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
Reader, have you a sympathy for clams? 'Happy as a clam,' is an old adage.
It is not without meaning. Your clam enjoys the true otium cum dignitate.
Ensconced in his mail of proof - for defence purely, his disposition being
no ways bellicose - he snugly nestleth in his mucid bed, revels in
quiescent luxury, in the unctuous loam that surroundeth him, or, with slow
and dignified motion, worketh nearer the surface, as the summer suns warm
the roof of his mud-palace, or sinketh deeper within, from the nipping
frosts of winter.
[End excerpt]

My goal in offering this counter-hypothesis is to cause a roiling
controversy, ill-feelings, and fisticuffs, of course.

Here are two verses from a satirical poem published in 1828 that included
the phrase "sad as a clam". I suspect that the expression was a deliberate
comical reversal of "happy as a clam".

[ref] 1828 March 1, The New-York Mirror and Ladies' Literary Gazette,
Volume 5, Issue 34, Poem: "To A Belle" by CASSIUS, Start Page 266, Quote
Page 266, Publisher G.P. Morris, New York. (Google Books full view; also
ProQuest American Periodicals)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
I'm just now, you see, from a party,
 Of dandies, and women and men;
And oh, such a chattering Babel,
 No monkeys e'er made till then
The poetry lisp'd by the damsel--
 The nonsense returned by the beau--
The edibles munch'd by the "monsters"--
 Is Bedlam more horrible--No!

I was asked "if I liked Lord Byron,"
 I was asked "if it wasn't a jam,"
I was told "I had grown romantic,"
 I was told I was sad as a clam;
A dandy upset my oysters,
 A fat man trod on my toe,
A blue-stocking begged for her Album,
 And I'm crazy--I know--I know!
[End excerpt]


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