Unintentionally create numerous new problems while trying to solve just one.
Opening a can of worms, as any fisherman will attest, may mean more trouble than you bargained for. The good thing about live, wriggling worms is that they attract fish with their movement. The bad thing is that once the lid is off, the worms will do their best to escape and it can be very difficult to get them all back inside the can and put the lid on.
Various sources agree that the phrase was first used in the U.S. in the 1950s or earlier. However, some linguists believe that the expression is actually a modern version of the old Greek myth about Pandora’s Box.
Zeus, the king of all the gods on Mount Olympus, decided to hide the gift of fire from mankind to punish them for deceiving him. Prometheus, the champion of mankind, stole fire back and delivered it to the people. Infuriated, Zeus ordered Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship, to create Pandora, who was to be the first woman on Earth.
Pandora was given a jar – or box – that she was told never to open. But her curious nature, given her by the gods, won out. Despite the warning about the jar, she opened it. From that jar came all the evils in the world: sickness, old age, suffering, toiling, and death. And these have been with us ever since.
In this same sense, to open a can of worms means to release a host of often irrevocable problems or complications. As long as the “can” remained sealed, there would be no harm.
Sometimes the decision to open a can of worms reveals some very ugly worms. History is full of events in which the investigation of one problem has led to the exposure of dozens of other problems lurking beneath the surface. For example, the Washington Post inquiry into a break-in at the Watergate office complex in 1972, exposed scandals much bigger than the original story.
The uncovering of political secrets hits the headlines, but we all experience opening “a can of worms,” often in simple ways. Just the other day, I noticed a loose thread on the jeans I was wearing, so I yanked it. Bad idea! The jeans more or less fell apart and now I have the job of putting them back together. One second to get rid of the annoying thread, three hours to fix the damage inflicted in that one second!