Is there a metaphorical meaning for the word "Oysters" in this context? Or is it just a random animal came to his mind. I have no idea how the situation relates to oysters.

When I first came to Ceylon my Tamil friend A. chaffed me about my way of calling him and the rest of the population, whether Tamil or Mahomedan or Cinghalese, all indiscriminately natives, "as if we were so many oysters!" I told this to Ajax, and of course there was nothing for it after that but to call them all oysters !

Adam's Peak to Elephanta (1892)

  • 4
    Good question. My guess (but it’s only that) is that oysters in particular were chosen because people in general are completely unaware of the differences between different families of oyster and wouldn’t be able to tell one kind from another—just like this person here apparently felt about the native peoples of Sri Lanka. It evokes a kind of ill-defined notion of an animal that exists in large, unordered, helter-skelter lumps with few defining features. It could also, I suppose, be a reference to not understanding their languages, since an oyster is also a taciturn, unspeaking person. Oct 26, 2016 at 14:06
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    Googling for other uses of the phrase, the one in the third paragraph on this page is the only one that springs out as not containing a reference to something oyster-like (“being devoured like so many oysters”, “cracked open like so many oysters”, etc.). It seems to imply the same lemming-like quality as your quote here. Oct 26, 2016 at 14:13
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    I think the idea of oysters being undifferentiatable to your average human is correct; it may be more about differentiating the individual oysters, rather than one species from another, however. Oysters in an oyster bed are very difficult to perceive as individuals, as seen in this image. I don't think it's a standard English expression, but perhaps it is more common in Sri Lanka or among Tamil speakers?
    – 1006a
    Oct 26, 2016 at 14:41
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    @JanusBahsJacquet An excellent comment, right on point, but oysters are never "cracked open" [sic], they are shucked open! Oct 26, 2016 at 14:43
  • @PeterPoint I'll take your word for it—being a vegetarian myself, I am somewhat ignorant of ostreal terminology. Oct 26, 2016 at 14:47

1 Answer 1


Oyster beds frequently are home to huge numbers of oysters (http://www.oyster-restoration.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/CoenLuckRestMonitoring.pdf). There used to be many oyster beds around the UK (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20042050).

...like so many oysters... . The author is writing at a time when oysters were a well known food. Well known too for being extremely plentiful. The author is recalling how, when he first arrived in Ceylon, he was unable to discriminate among the various peoples ("natives") he met. His friend 'chaffed' his British companion for finding so many different people no more distinguishable from each other than oysters.

  • Good answer, better if you take out the word "worthless", in my opinion. Oct 27, 2016 at 4:22
  • I think this is the right answer, and have upvoted it. However, since the quote is reported speech of a Tamil native of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) I suspect it is more significant whether oysters and oyster beds would have been known in Ceylon than in the UK (except insofar as English readers could be expected to deduce the meaning of the phrase even if it wasn't in common use).
    – 1006a
    Oct 27, 2016 at 4:51
  • @1006a - yes, good point. I wondered about it and thought perhaps the Tamil companion was aware of oysters from hearing Brits talk... . Alternatively, as you suggest, oysters were also a plentiful food in Ceylon too.
    – Dan
    Oct 27, 2016 at 10:49
  • @aparente001- agreed!
    – Dan
    Oct 28, 2016 at 23:54

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