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

Charles C Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Tue Nov 19 18:48:14 UTC 2013

It strikes me, intuitively, that elaboration is as probable (in general) as abbreviation.  I'm fairly certain that "Cold as a witch's tit" was subsequently decorated, amplified (as the old rhetoricians would have said) into "Cold as a witch's tit in a brass brassiere," for example.  There's a subtle social pressure to be cleverer than previous utterers of a given expression.  (Thence the "creativity" of folklore, in contrast to mere rote repetition.)

Of course, since we're largely dealing with oral tradition here, authentic dating is so difficult.



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.


The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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