To Open a Pandora’s Box

By Maeve Maddox

I’ve found an expression that annoys me more than “deja vu all over again.”

It’s “a box of Pandoras.”

Denmark has tumbled into a box of Pandoras.

Meryl may regret having opened this whole box of Pandoras (language site, discussion of the difference between “can” and “may”)

My, I do seem to have opened a can of worms (or a box of Pandoras) here. (the topic is the music of Chopin.)

In many places the expression is attributed to former governor of New Mexico Bruce King:

His [King’s] most famous malapropism, frequently repeated by legislators during floor debates, was the time King said that a legislative proposal would “open a whole box of Pandoras.” (Santa Fe-New Mexican, Nov. 14, 2009)

I’ve also seen it attributed to Casey Stengel, Al Gore, former Arkansas Governor Frank White, and former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry.

Ideas about nature are famously malleable. Try to take just a peek, and Shazamm!–you have opened what Casey Stengal [sic] once called “A Box of Pandoras.” (excerpt at Amazon from a published book about Nature)

“We don’t want to open up a box of Pandoras.” — Vice-President Albert Gore, Jr. (comment at a site called TruckNet)

“We don’t want to open a box of Pandoras.” That was said by Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, D.C. He was referring to the Greek Pandoras’ Box. (a blog called Dahn Batchelor’s opinions)

As former Gov. Frank White of Arkansas once put it, the president thus “opened a whole box of Pandoras.” (article by Frank Perly at WashingtonTimes.com, May 18, 2010)

The expression to open a Pandora’s box has long been used to describe an act that may have unforeseen and unpleasant consequences. It derives from a Greek myth in which the woman Pandora, driven by curiosity, opens a jar (or a box) containing various human evils, unintentionally loosing them on the world.

The distortion “to open a box of Pandoras” may owe its galloping popularity to its similarity to “opening a can of worms.”

As a figurative expression, “opening a box of Pandoras” may have sounded amusing the first time it was used, but as an ongoing expression it gets old fast.

NOTE: the word “Pandora” on its own enjoys a huge popularity as a product name and in other contexts. Someone opening a delivery of electronic gadgets might have reason to declare that he was “opening a box of Pandoras.”

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12 Responses to “To Open a Pandora’s Box”

  • Cecily

    I don’t know whether to feel sorry for you. I am constantly amazed at the bizarre errors you come across, many of which I’ve never previously encountered. Very interesting though.

  • Stephen

    This is an interesting post. The original phrase would have been “Pandora’s Box” (singular), as in the myth there was only one. I had never heard of “a Pandora’s Box” until reading this.

    The first person to use the phrase (if out loud) may well have meant “a box of Pandora’s” rather than “a box of Pandoras”. This is more accurate regarding the etymology of the phrase, but uses a double possessive, which irks me when I see it even if it is technically acceptable. The mistake could have been with the people transcribing the speech, which then fed through to the examples you have found.

    I am amused by the fact that your example from Dahn Batchelor’s opinions has attempted to exaplin the origin of the phrase, but has still used Pandoras as a plural. Pandora was obviously a very common name in Ancient Greece.

  • Kate

    I have a question – why “to open a Pandora’s box” and not just “to open Pandora’s box”? I mean she only had one, that’s the reason it was scary. When it’s just “a Pandora’s box”, what does the metaphor mean any more?

  • Steve – Kestrel’s Aerie

    Isn’t a box of Pandoras a bunch of pricey cigars…?

  • Naomi Hamm

    I truly agree with you on that. It’s been used and reused. Why not try out something new, your own, you know unique; I also want to say this—the die has been cast: also so frequently used as to be old-fashioned, out-of-date. maybe not in the beginning but it is now.

    Why no try this: It has already been etched into stone that on the 7th day of the 7th year of the 7th sun it will formerly become undone.
    History has ceased to be the way it used to be> we no longer accept it to repeat itself.

    History is in the making! Meant to not always be repeated!

    Instead of Pandoras box being let loose, how bout this one: If I had only know the damage I would have done to these nice and gracious people, would I have told the husband his wife spent twentythree years cheating on him, even while she was pregnant with his child?

    Or also I never knew the trouble that would ensue when I set the school building on fire! Now I may have to go down and confess my part in it. I was the only to do it! Not my brother!

    Yes, I do believe a phrase can be overworked, therefore should be hidden away for another day. Seek your own origianl expression.

    Brain power at its utmost!

  • Stephen Thorn

    Trivia: When Pandora saw the evils flying out of the box she quickly closed it again, but she wasn’t fast enough to stop the baddies — only Hope remained in the box, and it is that Hope which has sustained mankind when the bad things come.

    Naomi, I’d say that coining one’s own expressions is fine, but doing so requires finding some universal (or nearly so) truth that your audience can easily and quickly grasp (see definition for “meme”); the old saws, maxims, sayings, anecdotes, proverbs, etc. are a handy shortcut to that end. There’s an old saying that “Proverbs are the wisdom of many and the wit of one,” and that encapsulates this concept nicely. Think of the difference in expended effort between you using a common expression such as “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and using that idea without a well-known idiom, as in “Because of many people’s propensity for getting into trouble when they have nothing to do it is often necessary to provide people, especially youths, with things to occupy them so they don’t cause mischief.” Feel free to invent any sayings that suit you, but please remember that it may take a considerable time (and much, much usage) for those sayings to enter the cultural consciousness and be universally recognizable.

    Kate: Just a thought — Technically, you are correct in that Pandora had only one box. However, said box was only mythological — it didn’t really exist. If you had such a box now (complete with bad things imprisoned within it) it would be Kate’s Box — but because it is so like Pandora’s fabled box the two could be seen as close enough to identical to be referred to by one title (in this case, Pandora’s Box, since she was the first to have one).

    I, too, tend to think that “a box of Pandoras” and “a box of Pandora’s” was simply a matter of confusion (although given the intellectual competence of many of the dullards, half-wits, imbeciles, con-men, liars, swindlers, etc. that we elect I may be rightly accused of painting said speakers with an awfully pretty brush). I have to wonder if it isn’t another case of “Spell Checker is NOT your infallible friend.”

  • owl omen

    Pan Dora is from Pan=all, Dora=gift.
    Pandora was ‘all gifts’.
    The box was filled with gifts from the gods, which – upon opening – seemed to be all evil, but was all gifts, including hope.

  • Acolin

    “China said Tuesday that North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese citizens last week…”

    Or should it say “On Tuesday, China said North Korean border guards shot three Chinese citizens dead last week …?”

  • hz

    Naomi, I assume you mean “the dye has been cast”? Rather than die…

  • Cecily

    @hz: Naomi was correct; the saying is “the die has been cast”, not “dye”.

    “Die” is the singular of “dice”, so the phrase means that fate has now been determined and the course of events cannot be changed.

    The saying “straight as a die” also uses the same word and means honest.

  • hz

    Thanks for the clarification Cecily, that’s interesting… I suppose my response would I good example of a malapropism…

  • hz

    *be a

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