Q: What does “taking candy from a baby” mean? It seems to me that it would be hard to take candy from a baby, but I hear people using the expression to mean something that’s very easy to do.
A: The Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms says “like taking candy from a baby” means “extremely easy.” The dictionary gives this example: “Selling my mother something I made is like taking candy from a baby—she can’t say no.”
The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs describes the usage as a cliché meaning very easy, and gives this example: “Getting to the airport was easy. It was like taking candy from a baby.”
However, we’ve often seen the expression used to suggest disreputable as well as easy. Here’s an example from The Con: How Scams Work, Why You’re Vulnerable, and How to Protect Yourself (2011), by James Munton and Jelita McLeod:
“An enterprising criminal, Darius discovered that a small investment on his part could reap treat rewards. ‘It’s like taking candy from a baby. I don’t even have to write the code myself. I just go online and buy it.’ ”
In fact, many early examples use the expression this way, suggesting that the idiom may have originally referred to something both easy and shameful.
The idiom, which showed up in the US in the early 20th century, is often seen with “stealing” instead of “taking,” and “child” instead of a “baby.”
The earliest example we’ve found (with “child” in place of “baby”) is from Taking Chances (1900), a collection of short stories about gambling, by Clarence Louis Cullen.
In a story entitled “Experiences of a Verdant Bookmaker,” a grocer-turned-bookie tries to pull a fast one at the race track: “Now, this looked like a pretty good thing to the groceryman. It looked like taking candy from a child.”
The earliest example we’ve found of the expression used just in the easy sense is from the January 1904 issue of the Photo Critic magazine:
“After a photographer has made one or two dozen prints and becomes familiar with the general workings of these papers, he actually laughs at himself, it is so easy; like taking candy from a baby.”
An article in the October 1905 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, about a crackdown against corruption, uses the expression in both the easy and disreputable sense: “Taking money from St. Louis was for years easier than taking candy from a baby.”
Jack London uses it primarily in the derogatory sense in The Road, a 1907 memoir about his days as a hobo. One of the chapters, “The Pen,” describes the 30 days he spent for vagrancy at the Erie County Penitentiary at Buffalo, NY.
London writes that he and his fellow trustees used to steal rations of bread from the other prisoners and then trade the bread for plugs of chewing tobacco:
“Two or three rations of bread for a plug was the way we exchanged, and they traded, not because they loved tobacco less, but because they loved bread more. Oh, I know, it was like taking candy from a baby, but what would you? We had to live.”
Getting back to your question, we haven’t tried to take candy from a baby, but we suspect that it would be a lot easier than stealing bread from a prisoner at the Erie County Pen.
Easy or not, the expression is an idiom that’s not meant to be taken literally. We’ve written frequently on the blog about idioms, including posts in 2011 and 2012. We’ve also discussed “hobo” in a couple of posts, including one in 2009.