The expression shell game is an idiom derived from a game that goes back to Ancient Greece. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions that native speakers understand such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, chin up, eye to eye, barking up the wrong tree, hit the nail on the head, kick the bucket, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom shell game, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.
A shell game is a swindle, a fraud, especially one in which items or information are shifted around in a secret manner to avoid detection. Methods of shifting money between corporations and banks to avoid taxes is an example of a shell game. The idiom shell game is mostly American, and is derived from a game that has been played since ancient times, but a popular version played during the 1800s involved walnut shells and a pea. The idea is that the demonstrator puts the pea under one of three walnut shells in plain site of the game participant. He then shuffles the shells around on the board, and the participant is expected to pick which shell the pea is under. In truth, the demonstrator has performed a sleight of hand and the participant does not know where the pea is, though he believes he does. This shell game was a common street game during the 1800s, and is still played with cups and a ball or is incorporated into magic shows. The plural of shell game is shell games.
“The city’s shell game defense of saying, ‘We didn’t know what they were doing,’ just shows their wishful thinking approach to these cases,” Insley said. (The Baltimore Sun)
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the agency’s misuse of funds was a “shell game” that not only broke federal law but also compromised the parks. (USA Today)
This cynical shell game is bad enough, but Mr. Trump’s false information, apparently fed to him by the NRA in the form of selective statistics, makes it all the more deceptive. (The Albany Times Union)