The Multiple Uses of “Can of Worms”

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The phrase “can of worms” (sometimes written as “can-o-worms,” depending on the context) can refer to a number of things. There is an idiom involving a “can of worms”, where the “can of worms,” or rather the worms within the can, are being understood as a piece of information or conversation topic that will cause problems. Hence, one often hears statements like “don’t open that can of worms,” meaning one should not bring up a certain subject – the contents of the “can of worms” – because of the problems it may bring about.

There is also a popular worm-composting system known as “Can-O-Worms”. Can-O-Worms is an odorless operation that stands on five legs and is made from 100 percent recycled plastic. It is about 29 inches tall and 20 inches wide.

There is even a movie that is titled “Can of Worms,” which is itself named after a book of the same name. (The book, by the way, was rather successful, as it earned some nominations for accolades like the 2001 Rhode Island Children’s Book Award.) The movie, which was filmed in Vancouver, British Colombia, is a Disney Original Movie that was made for Halloween. It was released in 1999.

Finally, the phrase “can of worms” can refer to nothing more than a literal can of worms. So far, we’ve been talking about the abstract use of “can of worms” and some of the products that use this name, and this can obscure the plain meaning of the words, rather like how a statement like “you’ve hit bottom” can sometimes literally mean that someone has hit the bottom of something, not that they have sunk to the lowest depths of human despair. A can of worms might be used for a fishing trip, or it might be used to feed the many pets that eat worms. A can of worms might be purchased (that’s right, people buy worms for a number of different things), or it might be composed of worms that one has gathered in the wild.

So, the phrase “can of worms” is a part of a common idiom, a popular composting system (when spelled “Can-O-Worms”), and the name of a movie and book, but remember, sometimes a can of worms is just a can of worms.


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