Are they interchangeable? Do they really mean the same thing in this context?

As in the sentences:

I really enjoy these already shelled pistachios.

I really enjoy these already deshelled pistachios.

They are both saying the same thing.

Why are these terms ambiguous?

  • 3
    There is also bone/debone. They aren't ambiguous, they just mean the same thing. Another related case is dust, which means either to sprinkle dust/powder onto a surface, or to remove the dust from a surface; in the case of dust, there is ambiguity.
    – Kosmonaut
    Jun 23, 2011 at 19:35
  • I don't hear ambiguity with an "already," but try: "I really enjoy these shelled pistachios" - I might interpret that as some pistachios that have shells and where I've got to remove the shells. "De-shelled" would resolve the ambiguity for me. A similar use of "deshelled" seems to occur when describing other things with shells, like eggs and coconuts (see Google books results).
    – aedia λ
    Jun 23, 2011 at 21:04
  • In the case of molluscs, I prefer the verbs shuck and shucked, to shell and shelled/deshelled. Jun 23, 2011 at 22:56

5 Answers 5


[edited to reflect corrections in the comments]

It appears that shell came first, on the idea that if you were shelling something, you'd be more likely to be removing the shell than putting it on.

Though it's not found in the Oxford English Dictionary or Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com does list de-shell as a related form to shell (transitive verb), and one can see by a search engine that deshell and de-shell are in some use.

I suspect that people use deshell because it reasonably fits the meaning of to remove the shell from – independently of shell (transitive verb), perhaps in environments where shell (transitive verb) is not used very frequently. Although at first glance it seems that they should be antonyms, by historical reasons they are used to mean the same thing.

From looking at the dictionaries, shell seems to have more prestige than deshell. By some loose Google searches, it appears that shell is more widely used than deshell.

  • Eggcorns have to do with misunderstanding parts of a word as more familiar words that sound similar; it doesn't have anything to do with this phenomenon.
    – Kosmonaut
    Jun 23, 2011 at 19:39
  • @Kosmonaut: Yes, you're right, but it's the closest word I could think of, in coining a new word from re-analysis of an older one. I'm not so sure what to call it here. Do you know the proper term? Jun 23, 2011 at 19:41
  • Dictionary.com does list the hyphenated form as a related term, but that does not make the non-hyphenated form a word, does it? When I get home I will check the OED, too.
    – JeffSahol
    Jun 23, 2011 at 19:45
  • @Blue Magister: I am not sure that that is how the de- form came about. For debone, the earlier form was bone, which is when you do the thing you do with animal bones: remove them, much like the verb dust means to do the thing you do with a dusty surface: remove the dust. The de-bone form could have easily arisen independently as a more explicit verb to describe the process of removing bones: you are de-boning the animal. (This reminds me of how I spent my whole life using dandruff shampoo, and one day discovered that the Germans have been using anti-dandruff shampoo.)
    – Kosmonaut
    Jun 23, 2011 at 19:47
  • @Kosmonaut: True. I will edit my answer to reflect that. Jun 23, 2011 at 19:49

"Shelling" is the process of removing the shell/husk/pod from a nut or vegetable. I don't think that there is such a word as "deshell", but if there is, it means the same thing...sort of like "flammable" and "inflammable". They are not really ambiguous, just confusing.

  • 1
    In the UK, safety advice is to not use "inflammable" ever in warning signs as it is sometimes misunderstood, and to use "flammable" instead.
    – Henry
    Jun 23, 2011 at 21:22

There is a general pattern of verbs, created from attributes which a object may possess or lack, to signify the addition or more commonly the removal of the attribute.

  • Shell can mean to fire shells at a military target, or to remove the shell from something that already has one.
  • Skin can mean (usually in a software or industrial design context) to add a decorative surface to something, or to remove the dermis or outer covering from something.
  • Husk, by contrast, can only mean to remove the outer covering from.
  • Limb is only used to mean remove the limbs from a tree.
  • Bone (apart from its slang meaning as a euphemism for "fuck") can mean to stiffen a structure by adding whalebone ribs to something, such as a skirt, but more commonly it means to remove the bones from a food animal.

Sometimes prefixing "de-" also results in a valid word that unambiguously means "removal": deshell, debone; sometimes it doesn't: dehusk and delimb are not valid words (at least not in any of the free online dictionaries I've checked.)
There are several others, and you can probably create your own and expect to be understood; however, if you're making up words and want to be unambiguous, you should probably play it safe and add "de-".


The difference is that deshelled is not a word. To shell a pistachio (or something else with a shell) is to remove the shell, so a shelled pistachio has had its shell removed.

  • 2
    ... or it's been pounded with artillery. :P
    – KeithS
    Jun 23, 2011 at 19:50
  • 1
    @KeithS, Pistachios could be quite hard...
    – Thursagen
    Jun 23, 2011 at 20:51

"Shelling," in the context of nuts and seed pods, is the act of removing the shell or husk.

In a software context, however, the act of removing the shell of a program could be "deshelling," as a nonce coinage. If your beach was littered with seashells and you wanted to remove them, you might "deshell" the sand.

So the word is possible, but only in special cases.

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