Rance Crain

When’s the Best Time to Use a Folksy Saying? When the Cows Come Home, of Course

Dec 7, 2017

I was watching TV over the Thanksgiving holiday when my granddaughter’s cute little dog Winnie jumped in my lap for a snooze. When Ramsay noticed her all curled up, snug as a bug in a rug, she said Winnie looked “happy as a clam.”

I asked Ramsay why she thought clams were happy. She admitted she didn’t know, but I discovered later that some people think it’s because the top and lower shell, viewed separately, look like they’re smiling (of course, when you put them together they present a non-smiling visage).

So I looked it up, and in reality “happy as a clam” is only part of the saying. The full phrase is “happy as a clam at high water” because high water or high tide is the only time clams are safe from predators (mostly people).

The Phrase Finder says high tide is when clams are free from unwanted attention, “surely the happiest of times in the bivalve mollusk world.” The first record of the saying is from the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier in 1841.

Sometimes, as in our saga of the clams, sayings get compressed over the years to the detriment of their real meaning. And sometimes sayings can be used to obfuscate the exact meaning of a person’s statement.

When longtime Congressman John Conyers was accused of sexual harassment, his lawyer Arnold Reed said Rep. Conyers would continue to defend himself “until the cows come home” — even as he was weighing a decision to resign. Now that’s very imprecise language for a lawyer to use, so I wonder if he wanted his client to have some wiggle room here.

Rep. Conyers did resign, but his lawyer, alluding to the return of the cows, left it open as to how long the congressman would continue to defend himself.

The key point is when the cows will eventually appear.

Wiktionary says the words “until the cows come home” possibly came from the fact that cattle let out to pasture may be expected to return for milking the next morning.

But maybe Rep. Conyers’ lawyer was also alluding to an alternative meaning, which was that the phrase may have a Scottish origin and may derive from the fact that cattle in the Highlands are put out to graze on the common when grass is plentiful. The cattle stay out for months until scarcity of food drives them home.

So perhaps the lawyer, Mr. Reed, was trying to give his client ample room to defend himself or not, depending on which way the wind was blowing and to also show that one man’s meat was another man’s poison.

Rance Crain is the former president of Crain Communicatons and former editor-in-chief of both Advertising Age and Crain’s New York Business. In 1982 he created Electronic Media, a trade magazine that, in 2003, he renamed TVWeek. In 2015 TVWeek was sold to Dexter Canfield Media Inc. In July 2017, Mr. Crain sold his interest in Crain Communications to his brother, Keith Crain. The company had been started by their father in 1916.


One Comment

  1. Growing up in the South I was exposed to a slew of expressions, most of which were humorous and many of which were off-color. Fact is when I worked in Chicago my co-workers often found my folksy sayings both amusing and perhaps a sign of mental inferiority. Many of my favorites came from my late dad, who would pepper conversations with expressions such as “grinning like a jackass eating briars” or “treated like a red-headed stepchild” or “I’d like to buy him for what he’s worth and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth.” I sometimes worry that we are losing the folksy flavor of our language, especially in my native South, which is increasingly populated by Yankees, sad to say. I never hear any of my seven grandkids uttering anything folksy even though all of them were born and raised in the South. I guess they don’t build folksy into video games. But maybe someday that will change, assuming the creek don’t rise.

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