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“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me.” -Erica Jong

I know I’m not going to change an idiom that has been around since the 13th century, but sometimes I pause to think, is the idiom as accurate as maybe we once thought? Today I am tackling the idiom snake in the grass.

We have learned that calling someone a snake in the grass is anything but flattering. What we are insinuating is that they do not look threatening or unpleasant in appearance, but their thinking, planning, manipulation, and actions are often quite harmful to those least suspecting. 

Well, I guess if we’re talking about literal snakes, yes, that is exactly what most do. They lie in wait, often coiled tightly while blending in with their surroundings. They wait until an unexpected prey is nearby and then strike. Again, they’re snakes. If every way animals survive on the food chain should become an idiom, why aren’t we using an updated idiom of he’s a human in the meat department. I mean, those animals didn’t even have a chance to see us coming.

I digress.

First of all, I think snakes have received a bad rap from the beginning. After all, it was the serpent that deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden. And then of course there is the other idiom we’re not tackling today in which we may say someone is talking with a forked tongue

And then there is the way snakes move. The effortless movements give them the appearance of being deceptive. The slithering motion is often depicted as antagonism in such tales like How the Grinch Stole Christmas: “Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant.” 

But I really think snakes get slighted because they are so misunderstood. Did you know there are more than 3,000 snake species in known existence. Of that amount, only around 600 are venomous and of that number, only 200 (7%) are able to severely harm a human. Closer to home, there are only four native snakes in Illinois that are venomous. This is out of around 40 different snake species in our state.

The large percentage of snakes serve a valuable purpose in controlling pest problems. Many nonvenomous snakes prey even upon the venomous variety. And it is for that reason I am going to attempt to provoke thought on how you perceive the idiom a snake in the grass.

When we warn others to caution themselves around someone because they are a snake in the grass, we are insinuating that they are waiting for the opportune moment to take you down. To strike out in a manner that is meant to deliver harm and hurt. We are saying that they may appear innocent on the outside, but they are driven on the inside by hatred and spite.

Cautioning someone about the snake in the grass is to say, go around, or avoid that person if all possible. Don’t tread through their path lest you wish to be preyed upon. And typically the person you’re warning thanks you and then views the snake in the grass through a different lens.

My first issue with this is that by allowing our perspective to be changed because of what someone says removes our ability to decide rationally for ourselves on how we perceive another person. What qualifies a person, even a close friend of ours, to pass judgment on another person based on what that person has or has not done in the past? I used to work under a leader who frequently used this idiom to describe the very staff she was in charge of leading. I initially allowed it to impact my thoughts. But then I started having real, open conversations and was able to form my own, more accurate opinions.

We should always approach people with whom we are unfamiliar with a certain level of caution, but we should not assume they are out to hurt us because another person said so. Just because there is negativity or apprehension between two people doesn’t mean that your experience will be the same.

The second issue I take with this is that most snakes provide a service. I might be stretching my thinking thin here, but if we are being cautious of the snake in the grass, are we not saying that we’re the rat? Oh I know, snakes have been known to rob farmers of piglets or chicks, but this is my blog and my idea so bear with me.

If a person is a snake in the grass, could they not be the kind that prey upon venomous snakes, in other words, even more unsuspecting people who can inflict actual harm? Again, I think we have to be careful before we just automatically assume a person’s motives are to harm or hurt.

I have found in the past that tackling idioms is not popular. I’m taking figurative language and putting a literal twist to it. It messes with people’s love for language. No one wants to read this and then think of themselves as a rat the next time they refer to a person as a snake in the grass.

Or maybe my thinking is driven by my own pet snake. A charming ball python named Gordon (pictured above). He has beautiful markings and an interesting personality. Either way, I want your takeaway to be that the views of another person should be developed by you and you alone. Based on your observations and personal accounts.  And go ahead, keep using snake in the grass. Gordon and I won’t be offended.