ENGLISCH/927: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (196) - Your oyster (SB)


196. The world is your oyster

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

While digitalizing and listening to old tape recordings, I came across a rather strange idiom, that was discussed in a BBC English teacher training programme, "The History of English". Now, in this broadcast the following sentence was referred to:

"After Shakespeare the world was our oyster."

In my opinion, oysters are rather slimy creatures, that live in their shells on the ground of the ocean. For me the expression doesn't make any sense. I'd be really grateful if you could give me some explanation.

Many thanks for taking the trouble,
Kurt D. (Amsterdam, Netherlands)


Dear Mr D.

Essentially, this phrase is used quite commonly and just means that someone has lots of opportunities and will make the most out of life in a situation. The oyster is in fact the sea creature. But how do you open it? By prying it open. You can't just gently touch an oyster with a knife; you either have to put some muscle behind it or you need a lot of skill, but all hard work is worth it because there is the chance of a huge payoff inside. Not only are they delicious - sometimes there is a pearl inside. What's more in Shakespear's time mother-of-pearl, a shiny material inside the oyster, was used for posh buttons and combs.

And this is ment in the turn you mention: Out in the big world, there seem to be endless possibilities, but they are not easy to find. And a pearl isn't sitting around for the taking, but an oyster is. Even if you find an oyster, there is no guarantee that it will have a pearl inside. If someone is quoting this line, written by Shakespeare (Henry IV Part 2) then chances are he is an optimist hoping that the oyster he picks up will be one of the ones that actually contains a beautiful pearl. So we might hear this expression in a conversation like this:

"I'm fed up with studying."
"What nonsense. You 're lucky to have the opportunity to study."
"But I'm fed up with it. If things don't go any better, I'm going to give it up and drop out."
"Oh no, you won't. Now, listen to me: You only got one more year to do. Then you'll have your qualification. And after that, the world is your oyster."

It means, after that, the whole world will be open to him.

So another example, if you study and understand English idioms, the world will positively be your oyster.


Miranda Gobbledygook

2 January 2015

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