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shameless pleading

Oyster, the world is one’s

Made in the shade.

Dear Word Detective: Please explain the origin of the phrase “The world is your oyster” with regards to having the ability to accomplish anything you put your mind to. And is this a correct paraphrase? — Julie.

You’re close, but in place of “ability,” I’d say “opportunity,” and rather than “accomplish anything you put your mind to,” I’d go with “profit from your position.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) explains the idiom “the world is one’s oyster” as meaning that “one is in a position to profit from the opportunities that life, or a particular situation, may offer.” It is possible to attain that position of advantage through one’s own efforts, ingenuity or foresight (“Bob got a degree in Computer Science back in 1990, so when he went looking for a job, the world was his oyster”), but it’s also possible to be born wealthy and grow up in a life of privilege where any whim can be fulfilled.

I am personally not a big fan of oysters as food (especially after a bout of neurotoxic shellfish poisoning caused by bad clams a couple of years ago). But even if I were an oyster addict, it would still seem strange to employ a small, slimy critter as a symbol of “having it made.” The OED defines an oyster as “Any of various bivalve mollusks of the family Ostreidae, typically having a rough, irregularly oval shell, including several types which are eaten (often raw) as a delicacy and may be farmed for food or pearls.” Our word “oyster” first appeared in English in the 14th century (“Many a muscle and many an oystre … Hath been oure foode,” Chaucer, circa 1395). We adopted “oyster” from “oistre,” the Old French word for the creature, but the ultimate source was the Latin “ostrea,” from Indo-European roots meaning “bone,” in apparent reference to the critter’s shell.

Although oysters have long been considered a delicacy, “the world is one’s oyster” invokes, as a metaphor, much more than just a tasty snack. Oysters are also, of course, the source of beautiful and very valuable pearls, although the chances of finding a pearl-bearing oyster on your dinner plate are vanishingly remote (especially today, since the oysters that produce pearls are not considered edible). But, as they say in the Lotto ads, you can’t win it if you’re not in it, and only by prying open the oyster can you hope to win a pearl or, at the very least, partake of the delicacy inside. So, in the most expansive sense, “the world is your oyster” means that, because of your position or advantages, the world is laid out before you like a plate of oysters needing only to be pried open to be enjoyed, perhaps with a pearl as a prize (“Invested with full powers to make the world his oyster, and leave nothing but the shell to his unpatented competitors,” 1809). The “prying open” part of the process is mentioned in the very first known use of the phrase. “The world is one’s oyster” first appeared in print in the early 17th century, and seems to be one of the dozens of phrases and figures of speech coined by William Shakespeare, in this case in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor (“Why then the world’s mine Oyster, which I, with sword will open”).

“Oyster” itself crops up in numerous other phrases, from “oyster monger” to “oyster shucker,” which sounds like a yucky job. Special mention, however, should be made of the term “oyster kiss,” which dates back to the 1600s but was probably best explained by a young woman quoted in the Vancouver Sun in 1994: “The raw oyster kiss. ‘They’re those wet, cool, open-mouth slobbering kisses,’ she explained. ‘You feel like a mollusk has attached itself to your face.’” And they say romance is dead.

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