They slither. They are slimy. For most people, theyare high on the list of animals nobody loves.

They are worms and snakes. From ancient folk storiesto modern animated films, snakes and worms do notoften play the hero. Fair or not, they are usually thecharacters that set bad examples.

This is also true in American English. In our idioms and expressions wormsand 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 isreally 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 whomay not want to know about them.

Now, worms are good at slowly digging themselves into the ground. Andwhen they are in the ground they are difficult to catch. This is the root of twocommon expressions.

If you worm your way into something, you get something you want byslowly using tricks and lies. For example, “I can’t believe he wormed his wayback 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 orlies.

But not all worm expressions are bad. A common expression, the early birdget the worm means the person who gets up early is in a better position orgets 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 seemsas if they do not want to be seen. So, a snake in the grass is a sneakyperson who cannot be trusted.

Here’s how you can use it in a sentence: “Be careful around her. She is just asnake in the grass.”

Another reason many people fear snakes is because they bite. And whowants 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 everygame.

Even if many people do not like them, snakes are useful. Their beautiful skinsare used for boots and bags. But have you ever used snake oil? It is probablybetter 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-Americanworkers in the 1800s who brought real snake oil over with them. Somebelieved 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, asnake oil salesman is a fake, an imposter, a charlatan. They are not to betrusted.

Maybe that’s why the snake oil business has never really recovered.

Beside the creepy way they move, snakes and worms have something elsein common. In American English, calling someone a snake or a worm meansthat 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 ratherdark way to refer to a dead bodyfood for worms or simply worm food. Infact, there is even a dark children’s nursery song about worms coming to eata 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 andworm? 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 Struckedited the story.


Words in This Story


slitherv. to move by sliding your entire body back and forth : to movesmoothly, quietly, or secretly like a snake

slimyadj. covered with slime : informal very dishonest, bad, or immoral

creepyadj. strange or scary : causing people to feel nervous and afraid

impostern. a person who deceives others by pretending to be someoneelse

charlatann. a person who falsely pretends to know or be something inorder to deceive people