What does it mean when a person is said to have opened a can of worms? The idiom is believed to have originated in the 1950s from the Canadians and/or Americans.
The phrase is believed to have originated from the idea that when you open a can of worms to get live bait for fishing, it would be difficult to close it again without spilling worms everywhere.
A person opens a can of worms when they are about to talk about and/or do something that is unpleasant.
Most times, they’re warned not to do so because once the topic is opened, it is difficult to close it back without causing some damage, so it’s better left alone.
Thus, are there other ways to warn a person not to open a can of worms? In this article, we have listed twenty (20) phrases that are similar to opening a can of worms.
You can use any of them in your conversation with people.
20 Phrases Similar to Open a Can of Worms
- Open Pandora’s box.
- Throw a spanner in…
- Digging up graves.
- Tip of the iceberg.
- Catch 22.
- Walking on thin ice.
- Stuck in a quicksand.
- To meddle in an issue.
- To impede on a matter.
- Hornet’s nest.
- Snake in the grass.
- Throw a wrench in the gears.
- Gum up the works.
- To unearth a secret.
- To exhume a hidden discovery.
- Throw a monkey’s wrench in…
- Unveiling a shallow matter.
- Exposing a sketchy issue.
- The leading edge of a warped matter.
- To reveal a lose-lose situation.
Open Pandora’s box
Another way to say that a person opened a can of worms is to say that they opened a Pandora’s box.
The pandora’s box story originates from Greek mythology where the female character Pandora opened a box that unleashed all the evils of the world.
When someone opens a pandora’s box, they unleash trouble by doing something they thought was harmless. The consequence of the action is based on ignorance and is not intentional.
To throw a spanner in the works
Another expression that can replace the statement Open a can of worms is To throw a spanner in the works. When someone throws the spanner in the works, they throw a wrench into the machinery thus stopping it from working.
It originates from a British expression that means to cause a disruption or problem by interfering with something. Most people will say that that is what happens when you don’t mind your business.
Digging up graves
The statement Digging up graves is another expression that can replace the phrase Open a can of worms. The idea of digging up graves means removing dead bodies from where they are buried which can be mentally disturbing.
However, its figurative meaning is to dig up secrets or issues that will cause problems when discussed hence it is advisable to just leave it alone. The consequences of the action would be both unexpected and unpleasant.
Tip of the iceberg
Tip of the iceberg is a great replacement for the phrase Open a can of worms. An iceberg is popularly known as a very large piece of ice that is floating in the sea and is mostly seen during winter.
The iceberg in this context represents a complicated problem and a tip is a small part of the whole. The remaining part of it is likely to be problematic or difficult and is better off hidden away.
The phrase Catch 22 can easily replace the statement Open a can of worms. Catch 22 is a slang that means an unpleasant situation which a person cannot escape from.
It is mostly a dilemma that results from mutually dependent or conflicting situations.
Most times, it is when a person needs to do one thing before the second but also needs to do the second before the first at the same time thereby resulting in conflicting situations.
Walking on thin ice
The phrase Walking on thin ice can also be used in place of Open a can of worms to describe an unpleasant situation. Thin ice is mostly formed during winter and is the part of the water surface that freezes lightly.
It’s the dangerous part of the surface that can easily drown a person who steps on it, and in the worst scenario kill them. Thus, when you say that a person is on thin ice, the person is doing something risky that will have dire consequences.
A wise person knows not to trust their whole weight on thin ice.
Stuck in a quicksand
Another quality phrase that can replace the statement Open a can of worms is Stuck in a quicksand. The literal meaning of being stuck in a quicksand is to be stuck in a deep wet sand that sinks as you walk into it.
Figuratively, it means a person who is stuck in a situation that is dangerous and/or difficult to escape from. The quicksand represents a very unpleasant situation that can trap a person who carelessly falls into it.
To meddle in an issue
When a person opens a can of worms, he/she raises a sensitive topic that will definitely cause problems even after it’s closed. This is why the phrase To meddle in an issue suitably qualifies and replaces Open a can of worms when used in a context.
A person meddles when they concern themselves with something that does not relate to them without permission from the person who it actually concerns.
To impede on a matter
When a person impedes on a matter, the person does something that stops or delays the progress of that situation; which is why the statement To impede on a matter can be used instead of Open a can of worms.
It is possible that if the matter was left alone, it probably would not have resulted in the lack of progress.
The phrase Hornet’s nest can be used interchangeably with the statement Open a can of worms. A hornet’s nest describes both a situation and a reaction.
For a situation, it spells trouble or hazardous circumstances and for reaction, it explains an angry reaction to something. Either way, it explains what happens when a person opens a can of worms that is better off left alone.
Snake in the grass
Another phrase that can stand in for the statement Open a can of worms is Snake in the grass. The idiom Snake in the Grass is popularly known to mean a person who appears to be a friend but cannot really be trusted.
The synonymity between the two phrases lies in the fact that someone who is truly your friend and wishes you the best will not open up a topic that will cause trouble and thus hurt you in the process.
Throw a wrench in the gears
Another way to describe someone who Opens a can of worms is to say that they throw a wrench in the gears. The latter phrase is an idiom used informally by US residents.
It means to change a thing in a way that disrupts something that was working properly and smoothly. Most times when a person does this, it is deliberate and intended to cause a problem.
Gum up the works
The phrase Open a can of worms can be used interchangeably with Gum up the works. The idiom Gum up the works is an informal phrase that prevents something from flowing or working smoothly.
When a person raises a topic that intends to stop something from working efficiently, they can be said to be opening a can of worms. Even if they later close the topic, the damage is already done.
To unearth a secret
Another way to know a person who Opens a can of worms is when they tend to unearth secrets that they should not. The intention would definitely be to cause trouble or to stop an existing peace.
Unearthing facts or evidence is usually difficult because there are always lots of lies around it; so the person has to work diligently to discover the secret which will likely cause trouble.
To exhume a hidden discovery
If a person is looking for another way to say Opening a can of worms, they can say that they are Exhuming a hidden discovery. The concept of exhuming means to dig something out of the ground that was buried.
So when someone exhumes a hidden discovery with the intention of causing trouble, then such a person can be said to have opened a can of worms and even if the person tries to make it better, the damage has already been done.
Throw a monkey wrench in the works
Using the phrase Throw a monkey wrench in the works to say that a person Opened a can of worms is also a very suitable replacement. When someone throws a monkey’s wrench into a plan or project, they tend to frustrate it.
When used in synonymity with opening a can of worms, the intention to sabotage the plan would be deemed to be intentional. Even if the person apologizes later and tries to close the matter, it will have already caused a problem.
Unveiling a shallow matter
Another method to show that a person has Opened a can of worms is to say that they have Unveiled a shallow matter. In this case, the matter is not really a secret however, opening it still tends to cause damage.
Here, necessity is not placed on how hidden the matter should stay but it is assumed that the people involved would be wise enough to keep their mouths shut knowing that doing otherwise would cause trouble.
Exposing a sketchy issue
A person who Opens a can of worms can also be said to have Exposed a sketchy issue. In this context, a sketchy issue is one that the details are not yet complete.
This implies that talking about only a part of the whole matter will lead to a misunderstanding thus causing quarrels. To avoid such problems, the person needs to talk about the matter in the context it was given.
However, where the person has already spilt the tea and even broken the mug the tea came in, the damage will not be readily amended.
The leading edge of a warped matter
You can say that a person has Opened a can of worms when they have a Leading edge of a warped matter. The second phrase simply means that someone has exposed a matter in a way that is not straightforward.
The shady way the person delivers the message will definitely cause problems. As a leading edge, people believe that the person has authority in what he/she is saying and thus it’s easy for him/her to sway them with his/her words.
To reveal a lose-lose situation
Revealed a lose-lose situation is also another way to say that they Opened a can of worms. The former phrase is usually used where someone reveals a problem which makes those hearing it panic.
For instance, the PA to the boss reveals to other employees that he/she overheard that the Company may likely fold or that the workforce will be downsized.
This will cause the employees to be unsettled and to panic. Even if the news is debunked, the employees will never be fully comfortable anymore. It is then said that the person has opened a can of worms.
When there is a complicated matter that someone wants to talk about which is likely to be embarrassing or awkward, you could tell them not to open that can of worms.
You could further use any of the twenty (20) listed phrases above to tell them to leave that topic alone. This way your vocabulary and expression are considered more creative and better to the hearers.