‘a word in your shell-like’: meaning and origin

The phrase a word in your shell-like means a word in confidence. The term shell-like is elliptical for shell-like ear and means ear.

This is illustrated by the following from Pssst . . . a few words in your shell-like, a Cockney lexicon that The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) published on Monday 28th May 1984 to help its readers understand the language used by the English actor George Cole (1925-2015) in the British television series Minder:

Shell-like: Ear. (“Let me ’ave a word in your shell-like.”)

Shell-like ear was originally a poetical term associating the shape of the external ear with the graceful convolutions of a small pink seashell. It is first recorded in Bianca’s Dream. A Venetian Story, published in Whims and Oddities, in Prose and Verse (London: Charles Tilt, 1827), by the English poet and humorist Thomas Hood (1799-1845):

“Be thou my park, and I will be thy dear,
(So he began at last to speak or quote;)
Be thou my bark, and I thy gondolier,
(For passion takes this figurative note;)
Be thou my light, and I thy chandelier;
Be thou my dove, and I will be thy cote:
My lily be, and I will be thy river;
Be thou my life—and I will be thy liver.”

This, with more tender logic of the kind,
He pour’d into her small and shell-like ear,
That timidly against his lips inclin’d.

The earliest occurrence of shell-like ear that I have found is from Past and Present, by Allan Park Paton (1817 or 1818–1905), published in the Greenock Advertiser. And Clyde Commercial Journal (Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland) of Tuesday 31st December 1844:

And she was there, in best attire,
Of country maids most fair,
With ear-rings in her shell like ears,
And ribbons in her hair.

Published in the Fall River Daily Evening News (Fall River, Massachusetts) of Wednesday 6th February 1889, the following extract from The Poet’s Valentine, by Howard Fielding, contains an occurrence of the original form of the phrase, i.e., a word in your shell-like ear, and variants:

Algy said: “Did the post bring you me lines?”
“Yes,” said Jennie, and I could see that she didn’t feel easy about it. She was afraid to confess that she hadn’t read them.
The poet hove a sigh with a question mark after it.
“They were so sweet,” said Jennie, “so like you; so full of soul.”
“Ah, yes,” murmured the poet, “that is it; brief but full of soul. How sweet is appreciation!”
“They were sort of brief,” said Jennie, catching at this scrap of information. “Why didn’t make ’em longer?”
“The muse, the muse,” said Algy, “she bade me whisper only one soft word into your shell like ear.”
The shell like ear tickled Jennie nearly to death, but she didn’t understand about the one word. Could it be possible that Algy had written a poem with only one word in it?

The earliest occurrence that I have found of the shorter phrase a word in your shell-like is from Bon Mot-Ifs, by Hartley Carrick, published in The Bystander (London, England) of Wednesday 14th December 1927:

An Open Letter
(From Phyllis to her Cousin.)

My dear, I am told they are giving
The twenty-one flappers the vote,
Which gets the old geezers who’re living
Their simply ineffable goat;
But, dear, just a word in yourshell-like,”
Though the candidate looks like a beau,
If his tongue be but suasive and bell-like,
My own Wilhelmina, say “No!”

Though his hair be deliciously wavy,
It may be a toupée or “toup,”
So beware lest you’re left in the gravy
Or (vulgarly) well in the soup.
If his accent be common or Cockneyed,
If he’s fast or his manners are slow,
If he walks with a gait that is knock-kneed,
My own Wilhelmina, say “No!”

Have a look at his eye (though they’re blue, I’d
Look out for the green, were I you);
And if he’s a beard, were I you, I’d
Suspiciously vote him taboo.
If he talks in a voice that is wheezy,
If his “brow or his breeding be low,”
If he’s never made mother uneasy,
My own Wilhelmina, say “No!”

The phrase then occurs in the following extract from Poor Poppy Is to Be Plucked!, the third instalment of the serial novel Service with a Smile, by Hilda Willett, published in The Australian Woman’s Mirror (Sydney, New South Wales: The Bulletin Newspaper Co., Ltd.) of Tuesday 18th August 1936:

“Look here, Stokers, about this company of yours. I’d rather like a word in your shell-like on the subject.”