To a Worm In Horseradish, the World is Horseradish

I can across this saying recently in a post about the perils of blogging by Todd Henderson.  It allegedly is a Yiddish proverb, made popular in a speech by Malcolm Gladwell.  I’m actually not so sure it’s a real piece of Yiddishkeit.  None of my (Hungarian) Yiddish-speaking relatives have heard of it, and I can’t find the real Yiddish version anywhere.  Rather, I think the expression is best sourced to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote an English short story with the expression in the title, and who used variants in several other pieces. (If anyone knows different, please feel free to comment.)

Anyway, it’s a useful expression for someone who feels trapped by a bad situation.  I thought I’d pass it along.  It’s an illustration, incidentally, of how bizarre associations can make writing more vivid.  (What’s the worm doing in horseradish?  Why horseradish?  Are worms kosher for Passover?)  It’s also a useful reminder, in this new year, that it’s pretty bad to be a worm in horseradish.

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18 Responses

  1. Dan Markel says:

    I’ve not seen this particular iteration, but I”m a fan of a similar phrasing: when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
    It might be about the perils of immersive experiences that blind you to seeing other things outside your particular perspective. On the other hand, sometimes a worm in Khrain is just a worm in Khrain…

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    I don’t think a worm is ever kosher. Nor is the meaning of the expression immediately clear. It would help to know, e.g., does the worm like horseradish? Or at least, is it OK with it? Taken by itself, the saying could be understood not so much as being about bad situations, but rather as about limited imaginations and world-views (along the lines of to someone with a hammer everything looks like a nail, etc. — though horseradish is earthier, more comical/ironic and more ethnic, for sure). Does the story make the meaning clearer? And BTW, white horseradish, or pink?

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    OK, so great minds think alike — I was writing while Dan was posting. As for the pertinence of the type of horseradish, cf. this Hasidic tale about herring collected by Woody Allen (1971).

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    I take the reference to be about limited horizons: It’s easy to think the world immediately around you is the whole world. Horseradish works because it’s opaque and usually in a very small container, which makes the foolishness of thinking that’s the whole world all the more dramatic.

  5. Shag from Brookline says:

    I wonder how horseradish (with worms) would go with broiled swordfish? A culinary match?

    As to Orin’s point, if the world is your oyster, then hold the horseradish (with or without worms).

  6. Dave Hoffman says:

    It it were about limited horizons or the comforts of certainty, it’d be a worm in applesauce. That’s be more plausible to boot. Horseradish is an irritant, so I think the expression is really about how being in a bad situation makes you feel like the entire world is ending.

  7. great unknown says:

    My Mother – may she live and be well – learned this expression in Lita as a child in the 30s. The meaning, in her usage, is that the worm living in the bitter horseradish cannot conceive of anything better, and therefore does not attempt to improve its circumstances.

    re previous comments:

    a)we are talking about a worm infesting a live plant. Yes, horseradish grows as a root in the ground, not on supermarket shelves in glass bottles. And no, it is not pink. viz infra

    b) this same view is vividly expressed by Steinberg with the famous New Yorker cover of Mar 29 1976.

  8. Shag from Brookline says:

    Do we have scientific information that the worm does not really enjoy the horseradish? Is it clear that the saying refers to the worm infesting a live plant as suggested by the “great unknown” (or might this a Rumsfeldian “unknown”)? Or does the saying refer to the worm in grated horseradish or Chrain? In any event, the bitter horseradish, if properly prepared, may enhance certain culinary delights; but watch the knuckles while grating so as not to turn the Chrain pink.

  9. great unknown says:

    Re: #8
    a)Regarding your first point. My response to the use of this aphorism against me was always, “Not only is the worm thriving, but it would probably die in any other environment.”
    b)In my more than three score years, many involved in issues of insect infestation of food, I have never run across worms living in grated horseradish. In fact, having cultivated horseradish, I noted that the pests [primarily a specific caterpillar] attack only the leaves of the plant and not the root.
    c) If you’ve ever actually grated reasonable quantities of horseradish you would know that the pain of an occassional knuckle scrape pales in comparison to that of the fumes attacking the eyes and the nasal sinuses. I’ve used a gas mask to good effect.

  10. Shag from Brookline says:

    Compare this to “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” Horseradish sauce augmented our Christmas dinner featuring roast tenderloin of beef medium rare, being preferred over the bernaise sauce also available.

    For some, sniffing grated horseradish woks like Vicks Vaporub.

  11. A.J. Sutter says:

    Dave, the horseradish may be an irritant to you, but the pertinent opinion here is the worm’s (given that the whole premise of the expression anyway is that the worm has consciousness). Flies, cockroaches, dung beetles, etc. probably have preferences very different from ours. I hope.

    To great unknonwn @7&9,
    a. Where is “Lita”? Lithuania?
    b. Could you confirm from your mother that the live plant is involved? I’m pretty sure my Yiddish-speaking forebears (Galizianers) would have thought harvested or even already pickled when they thought from horseradish. Not to doubt your entomological and horticultural chops, but they might not be pertinent to the origins of the expression.

  12. Shag from Brookline says:

    As a follow up to A.J. #10 b to great unknown, I think of the joke about biting into an apple and discovering half a worm. Perhaps in the horseradish grating process there may have been a similar discovery. As in the case of swordfish, the worm provides protein. We don’t throw out the baby with the bath water, do we?

  13. Shag from Brookline says:

    My comment at #12 should have referred to A.J. #11 b to great unknown. Sorry.

  14. Jim Maloney says:

    In this Yiddish metaphor of which the above is one variant or aspect, the worm LIKES the horseradish. Hence the related “der vorem in chrein meint az s’iz nishto bessers” (as blissful as a worm in horseradish),* meaning essentially “ignorance is bliss.” Why is the worm blissful? The whole world is the horseradish, which it eats and LIKES to eat. There is nothing in the world (which consists entirely of the delicious horseradish) for it to worry about. Or so it assumes. And (the pearl of Yiddish wisdom) getting used to a sheltered world makes one vulnerable to and unprepared for the world’s many threats and dangers. Or, as the GD put it, “when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door” (from “Uncle John’s Band”).

    BTW, I think #7 – “great unknown” – is correct: the original proverb referred to a plant in the soil. Imagining the worm in the jar conjures theses silly questions of vermiform kashrut (AJ Sutter is also right: a worm is treif no matter how you or when slice it… ah, but locusts, that’s another invertebrate story).

    * Rosmarin, Rachel S., Mamma Used to Say: Pearls of Wisdom from the World of Yiddish (Feldheim Publishers 2000) (trans. by Iskowitz, Y. from original 1997 Hebrew edition), at 56.

  15. Zahava says:

    @Jim Maloney #14: No, the worm doesn’t like the horseradish. Horseradish, as others have said, is an irritant. The expression you cite (“blissful as a worm in horseradish”) is meant ironically – the worm is blissful (ignorant) in its painful situation because it has never known an existence free from this pain. To add further irony, although there is a wide world beyond the horseradish, as the original expression cited states, “to a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish” – so as another poster said, the worm can’t dream of a life free of the pain it has always known.

  16. JIm Maloney says:

    @Zahava #15: Well, we just finished the second Seder; no worms in the horseradish to ask! But, having read your comment, and on further reflection, I think I agree with you. These Yiddish pearls are about failure to consider the better possibilities beyond one’s immediate situation, perhaps a bit like being a slave in Goshen and not even imagining a better life, which is the first step toward finding one…

  17. klf says:

    “To a worm in a turnip, the world is a turnip.” Jon Stewart used a variation on this saying recently to describe people’s inability to perceive things that are outside of their proverbial turnip/horseradish. Meaning that if you always live in a bubble of your own beliefs, and never venture out of that bubble to perceive different or conflicting beliefs(the world), then you will always see the world through your bubble and never inch closer to the realities of other worms. There is a bit of caution though, because it is takes great risk for a worm to venture out of a turnip.

  18. Google says:

    It can mean that it’s someone in a bad situation. But it could also have a different meaning. It could also mean that you are oblivious to the outside world until you stick your head out of the horseradish. So if all your exposed to is horseradish, than you are never going to know anything else exists except for horseradish. That’s why it says the world is horseradish.