"hard outer covering," Middle English shel, shelle, from Old English sciell, scill, Anglian scell "seashell; eggshell," which is related to Old English scealu "shell, husk," from Proto-Germanic *skaljo "piece cut off; shell; scale" (source also of West Frisian skyl "peel, rind," Middle Low German schelle "pod, rind, egg shell," Gothic skalja "tile"), with the shared notion of "covering that splits off," from PIE root *skel- (1) "to cut." Italian scaglia "chip" is from Germanic.
Also in late Old English as "a coating or layer." The general sense of "protective outer covering of some invertebrates" is in Middle English (by c. 1400 as "house of a snail;" by 1540s in reference to a tortoise or turtle); the meaning "outer layer of a nut" (or a fruit considered as a nut) is by mid-14c. With notion of "mere exterior," hence "empty or hollow thing" by 1650s. The meaning "hollow framework" is from 1791; that of "structure for a band or orchestra" is attested from 1938. To be out of (one's) shell "emerged into life" is by 1550s.
Military use for "explosive projectile" is by 1640s, first of hand grenades, and originally in reference to the metal case in which the gunpowder and shot were mixed; the notion is of a "hollow object" filled with explosives. Hence shell shock, "traumatic reaction to the stress of battle," recorded by 1915.
Shell game "a swindle" is from 1890, from a version of the three-card game played with a pea and walnut shells.
1560s, "to remove (a nut, etc.) from its shell," from shell (n.). The general sense of "remove or strip off the outer covering of" is by 1690s. It also can mean "enclose in a case" (1630s). The military meaning "bombard with shells" is attested by 1856. To shell out "disburse, hand over, deliver" (1801) is a figurative slang use from the image of extracting nuts. Related: Shelled; shelling.
updated on August 21, 2022