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

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 20 01:55:43 UTC 2013

Thank you very much for your responses. LH makes an excellent point, I
think. It would be interesting to know how a variety of people
interpret "happy as a clam at high tide". How might individuals
explain the relevance or irrelevance of the added phrase "at high
tide"? (Of course, it's difficult to query people living in the

Thanks to Charlie for his valuable comment and example. Here are some
other elaborations of "happy as a clam" from Google Books and the web.
Apparently, the likelihood of being eaten can make a clam happy too.
Imputed clam psychology is odd.

happy as a clam in butter sauce
happy as a clam in white wine butter sauce
happy as clams in the sand and the sun
happy as a clam in the mud
happy as a clam in thirty feet of water


On Tue, Nov 19, 2013 at 1:48 PM, Charles C Doyle <cdoyle at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Charles C Doyle <cdoyle at UGA.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Phrase: happy as a clam; happy as a clam at high water
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> 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.
> Charlie
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 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.
> Joel
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