The expression shell game is an idiom derived from a game that goes back to Ancient Greece. 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)