Hello and welcome to the VOA Learning English program, “Words and Their Stories.”
They slither. They are slimy. For most people, they are high on the list of animals nobody loves.
They are worms and snakes. From ancient folk stories to modern animated films, snakes and worms do not often play the hero. Fair or not, they are usually the characters that set bad examples.
This is also true in American English. In our idioms and expressions worms and snakes are often the bad guys.
First, let’s talk about worms.
If you don’t like worms, one is bad enough. But a whole can of worms is really bad! A can of worms is a very difficult issue or set of problems. And to open a can of worms means to share those problems with other people who may not want to know about them.
Now, worms are good at slowly digging themselves into the ground. And when they are in the ground they are difficult to catch. This is the root of two common expressions.
If you worm your way into something, you get something you want by slowly using tricks and lies. For example, “I can’t believe he wormed his way back into her life! She won’t ever learn!” And if you worm your way out of something, you are avoiding or escaping something by using again tricks or lies.
But not all worm expressions are bad. A common expression, the early bird get the worm means the person who gets up early is in a better position or gets the worm. Good for the bird. Bad for the worm.
Now, let’s talk about snakes.
When snakes move, they slither along the ground or in the grass. It seems as if they do not want to be seen. So, a snake in the grass is a sneaky person who cannot be trusted.
Here’s how you can use it in a sentence: “Be careful around her. She is just a snake in the grass.”
Another reason many people fear snakes is because they bite. And who wants to get bit by a snake, right? So, snakebit means to be very unlucky. For example, if your favorite soccer team is snakebit, they are losing every game.
Even if many people do not like them, snakes are useful. Their beautiful skins are used for boots and bags. But have you ever used snake oil? It is probably better if you haven’t.
In American English, snake oil is a method or treatment that does not work. It’s a trick.
Some word historians say this expression comes from Asian-American workers in the 1800s who brought real snake oil over with them. Some believed the oil from a certain type of snake could help joint and muscle pain. But then people started making fake snake oil that did not do anything. So, a snake oil salesman is a fake, an imposter, a charlatan. They are not to be trusted.
Maybe that’s why the snake oil business has never really recovered.
Beside the creepy way they move, snakes and worms have something else in common. In American English, calling someone a snake or a worm means that person is not liked or respected.
And that’s it for today’s program.
I leave you with one more worm expression. There is an informal and rather dark way to refer to a dead body -- food for worms or simply worm food. In fact, there is even a dark children’s nursery song about worms coming to eat a dead body buried in the ground.
Like I said early in the program, snakes and worms are creepy.
I’m Anna Matteo.
I’m curious. Does your language have idioms or expressions using snake and worm? And are snakes and worms viewed as badly as they are in the U.S.? Let us know in the Comments section and on our Facebook page!
Anna Matteo wrote this piece for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck edited the story.
Words in This Story
slither – v. to move by sliding your entire body back and forth : to move smoothly, quietly, or secretly like a snake
slimy – adj. covered with slime : informal very dishonest, bad, or immoral
creepy – adj. strange or scary : causing people to feel nervous and afraid
imposter – n. a person who deceives others by pretending to be someone else
charlatan – n. a person who falsely pretends to know or be something in order to deceive people