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[shelf] /ʃɛlf/
noun, plural shelves
[shelvz] /ʃɛlvz/ (Show IPA)
a thin slab of wood, metal, etc., fixed horizontally to a wall or in a frame, for supporting objects.
the contents of this:
a shelf of books.
a surface or projection resembling this; ledge.
Physical Geography.
  1. a sandbank or submerged extent of rock in the sea or river.
  2. the bedrock underlying an alluvial deposit or the like.
  3. continental shelf.
Archery. the upper part of the bow hand, on which the arrow rests.
off the shelf, readily available from merchandise in stock:
Any of those parts can be purchased off the shelf.
on the shelf, Informal.
  1. put aside temporarily; postponed.
  2. inactive; useless.
  3. without prospects of marriage, as after having broken an engagement.
Origin of shelf
1350-1400; Middle English; Old English scylfe; akin to Low German schelf shelf, Old Norse -skjalf bench
Related forms
shelflike, adjective Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
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British Dictionary definitions for on the shelf


noun (pl) shelves (ʃɛlvz)
a thin flat plank of wood, metal, etc, fixed horizontally against a wall, etc, for the purpose of supporting objects
something resembling this in shape or function
the objects placed on a shelf, regarded collectively: a shelf of books
a projecting layer of ice, rock, etc, on land or in the sea See also continental shelf
(mining) a layer of bedrock hit when sinking a shaft
(archery) the part of the hand on which an arrow rests when the bow is grasped
on the shelf, put aside or abandoned: used esp of unmarried women considered to be past the age of marriage
(transitive) (Austral, slang) to inform upon
Derived Forms
shelflike, adjective
Word Origin
Old English scylfe ship's deck; related to Middle Low German schelf shelf, Old English scylf crag
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for on the shelf



late 14c., from Middle Low German schelf "shelf, set of shelves," or from Old English cognate scylfe, which perhaps meant "shelf, ledge, floor," and scylf "peak, pinnacle," from Proto-Germanic *skelf- "split," possibly from the notion of a split piece of wood (cf. Old Norse skjölf "bench"), from PIE root *(s)kel- (1) "to cut, cleave" (see scale (n.1)).

Shelf life first recorded 1927. Phrase on the shelf "out of the way, inactive" is attested from 1570s; of unmarried women with no prospects from 1839. Off the shelf "ready-made" is from 1936. Meaning "ledge of rock" is from 1809, perhaps from or influenced by shelf (n.2). Related: Shelves.



"sandbank," 1540s, of unknown origin. Related: Shelfy "abounding in sandbanks."

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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on the shelf in Science
See continental shelf.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary
Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
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Slang definitions & phrases for on the shelf

on the shelf

adverb phrase

Not in active use or consideration; deferred; on the back burner: We'll have to put some of those plans on the shelf for a while (1815+)


Related Terms

on the shelf

The Dictionary of American Slang, Fourth Edition by Barbara Ann Kipfer, PhD. and Robert L. Chapman, Ph.D.
Copyright (C) 2007 by HarperCollins Publishers.
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Idioms and Phrases with on the shelf

on the shelf

Inactive, not employed, as in With mandatory retirement at 65, many useful employees are put on the shelf. [ Second half of 1500s ]
In a state of disuse, as in We'll have to put her proposal on the shelf until we have more funds. [ Late 1800s ]
Without prospects of marriage. For example, After she broke her third engagement, her parents were sure she'd be on the shelf. This usage is always said of a woman and today considered offensive. It is probably obsolescent. [ Early 1800s ]
All these usages allude to an article left on the shelf of a store, bookcase, or the like.
The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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