There was the following sentence in Time magazine (September 16) titled “The world according to Vladimir Putin”:

The nation that put the first man into space has given the world no distinctly Russian export under Putin except for mid-shelf vodka and Kalashnikov assault rifles.

As I’ve been unfamiliar with the word “mid-shelf” (though it’s easy to relate it to store shelf) I checked online English dictionaries. None of Cambridge, Oxford and Merriam Webster Dictionary carries this word.

Google Ngram Viewer shows the emergence of the word in or around 1970, and its currency is on notable decline (to 0.00000011 in 2008) after peaking in the 1990s (0.00000024).

I think the following answer to the question “What in the heck is mid-shelf liquor?" in Yahoo Answers is relevant to “the mid-shelf vodka” in the above quote, and I conceived ‘mid-shelf “is most often used for liquor.

“In every category of spirit, you will have at least 3 tiers. - Top shelf liquor is the expensive stuff and bottom shelf liquor is the cheap stuff. Mid-shelf liquor is the good yet affordable stuff.”

But, I was confused when I came across the definition of “mid-shelf” in Urban Dictionary:

mid-shelf: A magazine that isn't pornographic enough to be top-shelf, but is still sold more or less with the purpose of providing (something else). Often contain women who believe themselves to be famous for something other than their breasts.

Is the word, “mid-shelf” applicable not only to liquor but any other merchandise found on the shelves of retail shops?

Is it better for nonnative speakers like me to say “middle class” or “ordinary liquor” than affectedly calling them “mid-shelf” when speaking with native speakers?

1 Answer 1


It is safe to agree, I think, that these tiers you mentioned (top-shelf, mid-shelf) refer to the positioning of the product on the shelves in shops. Expensive alcohol is bought not that often, so it is not necessary to put it within arm's reach, as compared to the alcohol that is not that expensive, is often bought and has to be in direct view and easily reachable. So this term can be referred to any product or groups of products according to their popularity, price and other reasons (like the magazine example from UD - magazines with explicit images have to be out of direct view).

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