Q&A: The world is your oyster?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're doing fishy business…

Q: Hi AWC, we recently received an email from Danielle. Her daughter has finished exams and everyone keeps telling her that the world is her oyster. She’d like to know why people say that!

A: Yeah, it’s odd – but then again, most idioms are odd.

Q: That’s true.

A: These days it typically means that you have an abundance of choices. It’s about access to opportunities, with the Macquarie Dictionary describing the phrase as the world being available to you for your advantage or pleasure, etc.

Q: But why “oyster”?

A: Don’t be so shellfish. Why not?

Q: Oh hardy ha. I mean where did the saying come from?

A: The saying has a very specific birth date – 1600 – from William Shakespeare’s play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. However, he originally used it in a different way. After Falstaff tells Pistol that he won’t lend him any money, Pistol announces, “Why then, the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.”

Q: Hasn’t he heard of a bank loan?

A: Well anyway, Pistol was planning to use violent methods to get hold of a fortune – hence his metaphorical description of forcing open the oyster. And we all know what oysters contain, right?

Q: Um, Omega-3 oils?

A: No! Pearls of course – which are the “fortune” he speaks of in the play.

Q: How odd – it doesn’t really seem to relate to today’s meaning, right?

A: No – back then, it was more about hard work leading to opportunities. In other words, you’re going to have to get busy searching a bunch of oysters to find the pearls in life – because they’re not that easy to open.

Q: Aww, shucks.

A: Exactly! Anyway, over time the metaphor softened to mean that the world is the oyster with its pearl (fortune, opportunities etc) waiting for you – you are in a position to open it.

Q: It’s a bit like when people say there are “plenty more fish in the sea” after you break up, right?

A: Yeah. Curiously, this phrase debuted about the same time – the late 1500s. Many variations have included “There are more fish in the sea than ever came out of it” – and the obvious meaning is one of choice.

Q: And then we have when things are so easy it’s like “shooting fish in a barrel” – where’s that from?

A: It dates back to the turn of the 20th century, before refrigeration came along. To keep them fresh, fish were packed tightly into barrels, so yes, it would be easy to hit one. Earliest printed usage appeared in the USA in 1898.

Q: Hmmmm seems a bit fishy to me.

A: We sea what you did there.

Q: Oh, hilarious!

A: Danielle just needs to remember that when “the world is your oyster”, it’s about having easy access to life’s fortunes or opportunities (the pearl) and nothing to do with putting them on ice and enjoying with lemon juice.

Q: And it all started when some dude in a Shakespeare play with a bad credit rating.

A: Precisely!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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