Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Taking Candy From a Baby

Posted by Neal on April 1, 2010

From the website 'Eric Conveys an Emotion'

Yesterday I heard someone say, “It’ll be like taking candy from a baby,” meaning that some job would be easy. Once again, I had to bite my tongue over what I find an improper usage of this idiom. I know, I know, we linguists pride ourselves on describing language, not passing judgment on points of syntax or word usage. But as I’ve said before, just because you can describe or analyze some phenomenon doesn’t mean you have to like it, and I don’t like how this idiom has wandered so far from its original meaning.

Originally, this expression didn’t mean that something was easy; it meant it was impossible, or at least extraordinarily difficult. Not, as you might think, because of the difficulty of removing a sticky piece of candy from a toddler’s fist, using your finger to dig around inside their cheeks for it after they’ve shoved it into their mouth, or trying to ignore the subsequent tantrum if you succeed. The reason taking candy from a baby signified doing the near impossible has to do with the fact that in its original form, the expression was taking C.A.N.D. from Bay B.

Like so many idioms (for example, enough room to swing a cat, the whole nine yards), this one has a nautical origin. Back in the 1800s, it was common for American merchant ships to label their cargo bays with letters. However, an exception to this convention was the sick bay, which typically occupied the space that would otherwise have been known as Bay B.

Meanwhile, a valuable cargo at the time was guano from South Pacific islands, valuable for its nitrogen and phosphorus. One danger of transporting the guano, however, was that if it got wet down in the cargo holds, it could start to ferment. The result was a buildup of methane, which was just waiting for a source of ignition. One solution to the problem was to ship the guano high in transit, away from the lower decks where water might accumulate. This wasn’t always possible, though, so the next best solution was to transport the guano on ships that were making the fewest stops. Bundles intended for this kind of express delivery were stamped C.A.N.D., standing for “Cargo for Accelerated Nautical Delivery”. It became something of a joke among sailors to pronounce this acronym as “candy”.

Another joke among sailors, when the ship arrived at its destination and was being unloaded, was to assign the newest crew members to “take the C.A.N.D./candy from Bay B”. Having unloaded guano from bays A, C, D, or wherever else, the uninitiated sailors would go off in search of the nonexistent Bay B to finish the job, while the old hands watched and stifled their laughter. And thus, taking candy from Bay B came to mean doing the impossible. It was only when landlubbers heard the expression that it got reinterpreted as taking candy from a baby, and its meaning got turned 180 degrees.

It didn’t take long for it to happen, either. This Google Books hit from 1880 shows that the modern meaning of the expression was already in place even before the twentieth century:

The word has gone round the hard-faced power freaks of the geopolitical demi-monde that here is a US president who makes taking candy from a baby look challenging. Jimmy Carter is back. Be very afraid. (link)

I guess the ship has sailed on this one, and there’s no use complaining about it now.

About these ads

12 Responses to “Taking Candy From a Baby”

  1. Mark Allen said

    I’ve often been puzzled by the incongruity of the idiom, and this explains it fully. I Googled this further, and it seems that one point you did not make (according to Wikipedia) is that Columbus, Ohio was a major destination for South Pacific guano (the unused docks are still here!), and so central Ohio may have been the place where the expression was transferred, along with so much guano, from ship to shore.

  2. Carol said

    Speaking of loads of guano…

  3. Glargamel said

    LAWL

  4. This is definitely one of the better April 1st blog posts I’ve seen this year.

  5. Oh dear. It’s now only a matter of time till we see this one doing the rounds. You’re playing with fire!

  6. s.h.i.t said

    it wasn’t C.A.N.D . it was S.H.I.T . Store High In Transit, this being another urban legend about the start of the slang word shit. good day sir

  7. Dan Harrison said

    Very interesting, though I don’t know if we can trust an individual who confuses an article written in 2009 for a book written in 1880 and in whose reference to Jimmy Carter should have tipped him off.

  8. [...] Another joke among sailors, when the ship arrived at its destination and was being unloaded, was to assign the newest crew members to “take the C.A.N.D./candy from Bay B”. Having unloaded guano from bays A, C, D, or wherever else, the uninitiated sailors would go off in search of the nonexistent Bay B to finish the job.  And thus, taking candy from Bay B came to mean doing the impossible. Eventually, the  expression was reinterpreted as taking candy from a baby, and its meaning was completely reversed. (from LiteralMinded.wordpress.com) [...]

  9. Learn more about Tapatio…

    [...]Taking Candy From a Baby « Literal-Minded[...]…

  10. My first thought is, “April Fool!” I’m afraid to even relate this story to anyone today for fear of encountering the same response.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 463 other followers

%d bloggers like this: