1580s, "structure affording protection," possibly an alteration of Middle English sheltron, sheldtrume "roof or wall formed by locked shields," from Old English scyldtruma, from scield "shield" (see shield (n.)) + truma "troop," related to Old English trum "strong, firm, stable," from Proto-Germanic *trum-, from PIE *dru-mo-, suffixed form of root *deru- "be firm, solid, steadfast."
If so, the original notion is of a compact body of men protected by interlocking shields. OED finds this "untenable" and proposed derivation from shield + -ture. Figurative sense is recorded from 1580s; meaning "temporary lodging for homeless poor" is first recorded 1890 in Salvation Army jargon; sense of "temporary home for animals" is from 1971. Related: Shelterless.
1580s, "to screen, protect," from shelter (n.); in the income investment sense, from 1955. Meaning "to take shelter" is from c. 1600. Related: Sheltered; sheltering.
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