The other day someone said about a mutual acquaintance of ours, “He’s as happy as a clam.” It was surprising to hear that figure of speech brought out of retirement. Happy as a clam was a cliché decades ago, but in recent years had been supplanted by other similes on that theme, including one about pigs and their environment.
It did get me wondering what it is about their existence that brings clams happiness, and how anyone can tell when mollusks are bubbling over with joy, or when they get depressed and think life is nothing but chowder. Were scientific studies ever done to measure the contentment level of bivalves? Are cherrystone clams innately jollier than, say, the Pacific geoduck or any of the other 12,000 species? I’m not one to take a clam’s happiness at face value, partly because it has no face.
Most similes sort of make sense. Strong as an ox? Sure, I get that. Sleeping like a baby? Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, since infants tend to wake up crying every couple of hours — but when they’re asleep they certainly do look peaceful. Sick as a dog? No explanation necessary. Fit as a fiddle? Hmm. OK, fiddles have slim waists; maybe that’s the wisp of logic that supports that figure of speech. Drunk as a skunk doesn’t make literal sense, but at least it rhymes.
I’m fairly certain that no research has been done that compares a raw January day to a welldigger’s rear end, or to a specific portion of a witch’s anatomy. I once met a woman who claimed to be a witch — insisted she was, really. It would not have been appropriate for me to ask about the temperature of her bosom, so I can only supply scant anecdotal evidence. A furtive glance at the front of her shirt did not reveal any obvious signs of frost. I made my escape from her company as soon as possible, so I have nothing more to add to that line of scientific inquiry.
I was, however, able to track down an answer about clams. According to the Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris, the saying is puzzling to us because it has been abbreviated. “The reason for the aphorism becomes clear,” the authors state, “when we give it in full: ‘Happy as a clam at high tide.’ Clams, you see, can be dug only at low tide, when the mud flats in which they grow are exposed.”
Ah, so that’s it: The secret of happiness is being hidden in mud. I don’t know… It may work for clams, but for humans, that’s not true happiness — it’s merely a spa treatment.
Personally, I think we need to put the clam simile back into retirement and come up with something that’s a little more plausible. How about “happy as a dolphin”? At least they seem to be smiling all the time.