Shell phrases … in a nutshell

2nd February 2023

Last night, my wonderful co-teacher, Ms H, was speaking about a student in our class who has really blossomed. The student used to be very shy and speak in a barely-audible whisper; now the student is a Top Cat.

Ms H referred to the transition mistakenly as, “In a nutshell,” when the correct expression is to ‘come out of his or her shell.’ Thus, today’s blog will focus on the use of the word ‘shell’ in common phrases.

a word in your shell-like

This means that someone wants to speak to you about something serious. Ears are shaped a little like shells, so here ‘shell-like’ comes from ‘shell-like ear.’ We often hear this on UK TV police dramas when an inspector wants to speak to a suspect.

The phrase is used by people in positions of power, so don’t use this when speaking to your manager or parents !

coming out of her shell

If someone is very quiet or shy, they are said to be ‘in their shell’, like a tortoise. When someone starts to be more sociable, speaking more, showing their potential, we say they are ‘coming out of their shell.’

ghost in the shell

A phrase taken from ‘ghost in the machine’. The French philosopher Rene Descartes wrote about the separation between the mind and the physical body. The mind is not physical, but could be compared to a ghost.

Basically, it is the difference between the mind and the body even though they co-exist.

Ghost in the shell refers to what is the true essence of a person, what someone is really like, no matter how they look.

Today, the phrase is linked to the Japanese manga series, cyberpunk and video games. The main character has a robotic body but still has enough of her brain (mind) to be her real self.

in a nutshell

When you have a lot of information to tell, but not much time, you just say the main points. The idea is that there is not much space inside a nutshell, so only the most important things can be included.

A popular range of computer books use this idiom, as well as this title below:

People may be interested in astronomy but may be put off by the maths and equations. This book will explain all the important facts in a way that is understandable.

The phrase is an alternative for ‘to cut a long story short,’ or ‘long story short.’

shell of his former self

In the classic Martin Scorsese film ‘Raging Bull’, Robert De Niro plays a boxer who changes from a powerful athlete into an overweight nightclub owner.

When someone changes so dramatically, we say they are ‘a shell of their former self,’ and yes, De Niro really did gain all the extra weight to play this role.

shell out

This means to pay for something, usually something unexpected and unwanted, for example:

“My laptop broke. I had to shell out £200 to get it fixed.”

shell shock or shellshock

A term used to describe the psychological effects on soldiers during the First World War, with constant bombs or shells exploding. Many soldiers suffered serious mental problems.

Today the phrase has been replaced by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

shell voicing

In music, chords are formed by playing two or more notes simultaneously. In shell voicing, often used in Jazz or Math Rock, only three notes are played: the root (or first), the 3rd and the 7th.

Let’s take the C Major scale


The root, or first note is C, the 3rd is E and the 7th is B. To play a Cmaj7 chord, the C, E & B are played together.

walking on eggshells

Being very careful about what you say or do, in case you make someone angry or sad.

“Our manager was in a bad mood. We were walking on eggshells all day.”

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4 thoughts on “Shell phrases … in a nutshell

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