The Grammarphobia Blog

Why are the clams happy?

Q: What’s the origin of the phrase “happy as a clam”? I don’t see what clams have to be happy about. If ever an expression doesn’t make sense, this is the one.

A: The expression makes sense, according to my 1970 edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, if we think of it as a shortened version of “happy as a clam at high tide.”

“In America especially, clams are esteemed a delicacy and are gathered only when the tide is out,” the dictionary explains.

Many language sleuths who’ve looked into the subject agree with Brewer’s, and I have no reason to doubt this explanation. But the earliest published reference for the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is the clipped version.

Here’s the citation from an 1834 issue of the short-lived undergraduate literary journal Harvardiana: That peculiar degree of satisfaction, usually denoted by the phrase “as happy as a clam.”

A fuller phrase (though not the exact one cited by Brewer’s) shows up 10 years later in a book of fictional essays by Ann Sophia Stephens: They seemed as happy as clams in high water.

Another near-miss appears in John R. Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (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.

In fact, the exact phrase mentioned by Brewer’s doesn’t show up in print as far as I know until an 1873 book by John Hanson Beadle that describes a visit to Galveston, Texas: A thousand or more negroes thronged the streets “happy as clams at high tide.”

An 1898 edition of E. Cobham Brewer’s dictionary, though, does include an entry for “happy as a clam at high tide” with the following comment: The clam is a bivalve mollusc, dug from its bed of sand only at low tide; at high tide it is quite safe from molestation.

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