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

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 19 04:56:01 UTC 2013

Joel S. Berson wrote:
> 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.

Thanks for your response, Joel. The viewpoint you expressed accords
with the consensus, and it does have a surface plausibility. But
perhaps this viewpoint should be examined with a critical eye.

Consider the framework of suppositions associated with the phrase:
"happy as a clam at high water". What can one conclude about the
mental status of the anthropomorphic clam when the water is low? The
claim would be unhappy and fearful because the high water no longer
protected it from clam diggers. Hence, the clam would experience a
regular alternating pattern of happiness and unhappiness.

The phrase: "unhappy as a clam at low water" would be consistent with
this framework.

Now consider the phrase that was supposedly constructed via
abbreviation: "happy as a clam". In the framework of the original
saying this statement is nonsensical. A clam is not uniformly happy.
In modern terms one might say humorously "as bipolar as a clam";
however, happy as clam" would not fit the framework.

The consensus view asserts that "happy as a clam at high water" was
widely known and then a new incompatible so-called abbreviation
appeared. It was logically incoherent and opaque; nevertheless, it
grew in popularity and ultimately supplanted the original phrase.

Yet, the evidence via citations does not support this chronology. The
phrase "happy as a clam" occurred first in the written record.

Is there an alternative viewpoint? Yes. One might argue that the
phrase "happy as a clam at high water" was constructed after "happy as
a clam". It was disseminated by individuals who wanted an explanation
for the odd phrase "happy as a clam". The phrase "happy as a clam at
high water" and its associated rationalization are part of an
e-myth-ology. They do not accurately reflect the origin of the phrase
"happy as a clam".

Admittedly, this alternative view is not very well supported, but it
is fun, and the support for the consensus view seems rather weak.


> 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.
> Joel
> 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 -

The American Dialect Society -

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