shell game


Definition of shell game

1 : thimblerig played especially with three walnut shells
2 : fraud especially : a swindle involving the substitution of something of little or no value for a valuable item

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Synonyms for shell game


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The shell game, a swindling trick in which a small ball or pea is quickly shifted from under one to another of three walnut shells or cups to fool the spectator guessing its location, is a version of one of the oldest and most widespread forms of sleight of hand. Conjurers have performed this trick, which is also called the cups and balls trick and thimblerig, throughout the world for centuries. The version that became popular in the United States in the late 19th century used walnut shells and peas. Shell game thus became the popular term for the trick, and the trick itself became so well known that the term is now used figuratively to describe dishonest actions that are done to deceive people.

Examples of shell game in a Sentence

it's amazing how intelligent people fall for that investment-fund shell game
Recent Examples on the Web The movie depends on a narrative shell game that withholds crucial information in the interest of stoking suspense, conjuring mystery, foregrounding visible action, and keeping a rapid pace. Richard Brod, The New Yorker, 1 July 2021 Democrats have decried the maneuver as a shell game and challenged the GOP to devote more state funding to schools in light of the state's unprecedented $4.4 billion surplus. Todd Richmod, Star Tribune, 21 June 2021 So zookeepers developed a shell game called double-clutching. Jak Wonderly, Smithsonian Magazine, 19 May 2021 Whether this a speculative shell game in which early Ethereum investors are patronizing the arts with crypto Monopoly money is a debate for a different newsletter. Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times, 20 Apr. 2021 These games include a pet-friendly versions of the shell game, hide and seek and more. Kelli Bender,, 5 Apr. 2021 That would thoroughly gut Manchin’s amendment, turning enforcement into a shell game that state tax-cutters would always win. Simon Lazarus, The New Republic, 29 Mar. 2021 For all of its visual beauty and brilliant writing, the movie is a shell game in the end. Ginia Bellafante, New York Times, 5 Mar. 2021 By addressing his expectations of Green, instead of covering up his transgressions with a shell game of excuses and explanations, Kerr reinforced the team-first culture that has been a Golden State staple in his tenure. Don Yaeger, Forbes, 24 Feb. 2021

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'shell game.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of shell game

1890, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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Time Traveler for shell game

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The first known use of shell game was in 1890

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Statistics for shell game

Last Updated

14 Jul 2021

Cite this Entry

“Shell game.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jul. 2021.

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More Definitions for shell game

shell game


English Language Learners Definition of shell game

US : a dishonest betting game in which someone hides a ball under one of three cups or shells, moves the cups or shells around quickly, and asks an observer to guess which one the ball is under

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