What is the meaning of a shell of its former self ? Refer to the article https://www.infoworld.com/article/3632142/how-docker-broke-in-half.html, to quote

The game changing container company is a shell of its former self. What happened to one of the hottest enterprise technology businesses of the cloud era?

The reason I ask here instead of looking it up in a dictionary is because

  1. The dictionaries I use don't have it, e.g. longman does not have this expression https://www.ldoceonline.com/spellcheck/english/?q=a+shell+of+its+former+self https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/a-shadow-of-your-former-self?q=a+shadow+of++its++former+self only has "a shadow of your former self"

  2. I googled "a shell of its former self" but I can only find some useful information. I had thought if it is a common expression I should be able to get many google search results. The result I thought make sense is this one "It means that although the team still exists, it no longer has the talent, spirit, and community support that it once had." But I am not sure if that is an "authority" explanation.

  3. So I was wondering is this a common expression that people will understand ?


  • Did you try your searches for "shell of his former self" (or her, your, or my)? Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 9:56
  • 3
    Lexico has Shell 3.2 An outer form without substance. He was a shell of the man he had been previously. Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 9:59
  • Oh I didn't but even I tried it now I got result like dictionary.reverso.net/english-definition/… , which is not good at all. Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 9:59
  • 5
    I was not making a joke. Think of a shrimp: it has a shell and the living parts within the shell. The shell can remain when the living parts are gone. Many shells collected on beaches have no living entity in them. The analogy or metaphor is made to an organization (a team, a company, a country) where the external form (the shell) exists, but the vital parts that made it what it was are gone or weakened.
    – Xanne
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 10:27
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    There are an awful lot of written instances of {He was a} mere husk/shadow of his former {self}, which is effectively exactly the same relatively transparent imagery, but probably has no "etymological" connection to the shell version being queried here. So if we define an "idiom" as a usage where the (conventionally established) meaning has to be learned (isn't obvious from the literal wording), I don't think this qualifies. It's just a "trivial metaphor", not an "idiomatic usage" as such. Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 15:48

1 Answer 1


"Shell of its former self" is the same as "Shadow of its former self". It is generally understood and used. You can also say "Ghost of its former self"

They all mean that something has greatly diminished compared to a former state. An example from Wiktionary explicitly gives:

22: An emaciated person.

He's lost so much weight from illness; he's a shell of his former self.

cf. the definition from Cambridge Dictionary:

someone or something that is not as strong, powerful, or useful as it once was:

Since her accident, she’s become a shadow of her former self.

The meaning of the sentence is then that the company in question is smaller, weaker or less important than it used to be.

  • 1
    There is a difference: the 'shell' can seem to be the same until looked at closely, but the 'shadow' is a more obvious change. Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 12:33
  • Dubious Can you give an actual explanation instead of what to you are synonymous metaphors?
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 12:38
  • One of the comments gives a relevant definition of shell "An outer form without substance" (see Lexico or Merriam-Webster). It implies a similar appearance. If someone is wasted away and deformed he might be "a shadow of his former self" but wouldn't be "a shell of his former self".
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 13:17
  • Edited for clarity and linked sources. From the question it seemed that the meaning of "Shadow..." was known.
    – dubious
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 13:57

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