Taking Candy From a Baby
Posted by Neal on April 1, 2010
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.