noun, plural shelves [shelvz] /ʃɛlvz/.

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.

Nearby words

  1. shelbyville,
  2. sheldon,
  3. sheldrake,
  4. shelduck,
  5. shelepin,
  6. shelf angle,
  7. shelf fungus,
  8. shelf ice,
  9. shelf life,
  10. shelf mark


    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 formsshelf·like, adjective Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

British Dictionary definitions for on the shelf


noun plural 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 collectivelya shelf of books
a projecting layer of ice, rock, etc, on land or in the seaSee 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


(tr) Australian slang to inform upon
Derived Formsshelflike, adjective

Word Origin for shelf

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

Word Origin and History for on the shelf
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

Science definitions for on the shelf



See continental shelf.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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.


see off the shelf; on the shelf.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.