Sunday, June 12, 2011

Pearl of Great Price

“From seeds of doubt grow mighty ideas”

I have been to a couple commencement ceremonies where at least one person takes it upon themselves to inform the graduating class that: “The world is their oyster”. One commencement at the California State University at Long Beach actually had posters made with this idiom presented as the tagline for the ceremony. I was a graduate student in the Microbiology department at the time so the oyster thing made me think of cholera.

Pistol: Why then the world's mine oyster/Which I with sword will open” --William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives Of Windsor Act 2, scene 2

The idea behind this idiom is that oysters have pearls in them, and the pearls have significant value. A person who knows how to open an oyster can do so with ease. They simply push the thin blade of a shucking knife into the oyster and sever its adductor muscle. Once the adductor is cut the rock-like oyster falls open. If it has a pearl in it then you’ve got yourself a pearl. The oyster idiom refers to obtaining something of great value with relative ease if you know the correct procedure.

Pearls are valuable, but not very useful. Their value is primarily in them being pretty-shiny objects. The value is set by supply-and-demand. If pearls are too common you might need a whole handful to buy even a sickly goat. There is an incentive, therefore, not to divulge the secrets of proper oyster shucking to too many people. The easier a time you have of collecting pearls the more pearls I will need to use for simple trades, and the appearance of my goat herd will suffer.

The subtleties concerning the nature of value, trade, and secret intellectual property to enhance the means of production, are not referenced in the “world is your oyster” idiom mainly due to the fact that the idiom suggests that you only get one, and that one is the whole world.

In common use even more potentially interesting dissections of the idiom are ignored. The pearl is “just there” in the oyster, so "go and get it". Talk of shucking is avoided as well as what must be the single most powerful source of oyster-idiom metaphors. I talk of seeding oysters for pearls.

Perl seeding is a procedure where tiny bits of material are added to living oysters. The oysters then form a pearl around this material. The material acts as a "seed" for the pearl by –get this- irritating the oyster.

With a world-oyster one could form giant pearls by introducing irritable bits of stuff.

The world is your oyster… Go forth and cause it irritation

Superficially this sounds like a less-than-optimal message, but what really irritates the world? What is more irritating than change? Could the metaphorical world-oyster be seeded with ideas, or doubt, or art, or expression, or opinion, or constructive activity?

What a cornucopia of delicious metaphors! Why are they so often overlooked?

Of course, if I was pegged to give a “World-is-your-Oyster” speech, I would probably talk about cholera.

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