Famous Sayings #172 — ‘Happy as a Clam’

December 24, 2019

Look at the Brandon playing with his new toys. He’s as happy as a clam.

It’s been a few weeks since I posted anything, especially these Famous Sayings posts, so why not have at least one before Christmas? This was a fun phrase to look up and in the quote above, I kinda found a way to link it to the holiday.

What Does ‘Happy as a Clam’ Mean?

When taken literally, the phrase “happy as a clam” has a connection to nature. The fuller versions of this phrase are “happy as a clam in high water,” “happy as a clam at high water,” or “happy as a clam at high tide.” It is true that clams are safer at high tide, at least from humans, because it is easier for people to find and dig up clams from the ground when the tide is low. Therefore, a clam would be “happy” at high tide.

When applied to humans, it means that someone is very happy, joyful, or contented. Though, it may also be a reference to their relative financial security and safety from hard times. The person who’s “as happy as a clam” may realize that the good times can only last so long and/or they are recently happy after suffering some hardships. Otherwise, people can use the phrase during periods of excitement or when things are going extremely well (“Where did”).

When Was the Phrase ‘Happy as a Clam’ Coined?

There’s not a definitive answer to this question, but many historians point toward the early 19th century. This is definitely an American term, but it may have originated in the northeast, where clams are plentiful. According to wiseGEEK, historians say that the shortened version of the phrase was common in 1830. The longer version of the phrase first appeared in print in the 1840s.

In 1848, the Southern Literary Messenger, a magazine that was published in Richmond, Virginia, referred to the phrase as “familiar to everyone” (Martin). The magazine alsodeclared that it was no longer necessary to use the full version of the saying since people generally understood the meaning of the phrase (“Where did”).

Examples of the Shortened Phrase

The shortened version of the phrase can be found in The Harpe’s Head – A Legend of Kentucky (1833):

It never occurred to him to be discontented … He was as happy as a clam.

John G. Saxe used the shortened version of the phrase in his 1840 poem entitled, “Sonnet to a Clam.”

Inglorious friend! most confident I am
Thy life is one of very little ease;
Albeit men mock thee with their similes,
And prate of being ‘happy as a clam!’

Examples of the Longer Version

Gary Martin said that the earliest version of the longer version of the phrase that he could find was in A December 1841 edition of The Bangor Daily Whig And Courier:

You correspondent has given an interesting, and, undoubtedly correct explanation of the expression: ‘As happy as a clam at high water.’

The full phrase was noted in John Russel Bartlett’s Dictionary Of Americanism – A Glossary of Words And Phrases Usually Regarded As Peculiar To The United States (1848):

‘As happy as a clam at high water,’ is a very common expression in those parts of the coast of New England where clams are found.

Works Cited

“(as) happy as a clam.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/%28as%29%20happy%20as%20a%20clam. Accessed 8 December 2019.

“Happy as a clam – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc., https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/happy+as+a+clam. Accessed 8 December 2019.

“Happy As a Clam – Phrase Meaning and Idiom Origins.” Know your Phrase, https://knowyourphrase.com/happy-as-a-clam. Accessed 8 December 2019.

Martin, Gary. “As happy as a clam.” The Phrase Finder, https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/as-happy-as-a-clam.html. Accessed 8 December 2019.

Revised by Thibodeaux, Wanda Marie, Edited by Wallace, O. “Where did the Saying ‘Happy As a Clam’ Come from?” wiseGEEK. Conjection Corporation, Modified 26 November 2019, https://www.wisegeek.com/where-did-the-saying-happy-as-a-clam-come-from.htm.


One thought on “Famous Sayings #172 — ‘Happy as a Clam’

  1. Pingback: January 3rd 2020 – Weekly Roundup of Members Posts | Blogging Meetup

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