on the shelf

Idioms & Phrases

on the shelf

  1. Inactive, not employed, as in With mandatory retirement at 65, many useful employees are put on the shelf. [Second half of 1500s]

  2. In a state of disuse, as in We'll have to put her proposal on the shelf until we have more funds. [Late 1800s]

  3. Without prospects of marriage. For example, After she broke her third engagement, her parents were sure she'd be on the shelf. This usage is always said of a woman and today considered offensive. It is probably obsolescent. [Early 1800s] All these usages allude to an article left on the shelf of a store, bookcase, or the like.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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