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

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Mon Nov 18 19:31:43 UTC 2013

I wonder if 1833 for "happy as a clam" vs. 1836 for "happy as a clam
at high water" (or 1828 for "sad as a clam") has any
significance.  The dates are very close.  We may just not have found
"happy as a clam at high water" earlier.  For me, common sense says
"happy as a clam at high water" would come first, as it is logical
and explanatory.  And "happy as a clam" developed later, as a
shorter, abbreviated phrase.

And Barry and Larry (and the sailors; see below) agree with me.

P.S.  I can mildly antedate Barry's 14 January 1836 (Newark (NJ)
Daily Advertiser, pg. 2, col. 1) citation for "happy as a clam at
high water".  It's also to "Mrs. Butternut":  "Dear Mrs. Butternut, I
must leave off, for I can't say any more, only that if I was once
more safe at home, I should be happy as a clam at high water, as the
sailors say."  7 January 1836, Boston Courier, "The Oakwood Letters.
Letter No. II. Aunt Sally to Mrs. Butternut.  At Seam Jun.
16th.",  4/1.  19th Century U.S. Newspapers.


At 11/17/2013 08:03 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole wrote:
> >>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]
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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