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OFFBEAT

When prawns get naked

Saturday, October 15, 2016 - 05:50
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HERE'S a question for the ages: If a prawn has been removed from its shell, is it a shelled prawn or a deshelled one?

Going by most restaurant menus in Singapore, they're deshelled - the "de" prefix indicating that the carapace has been removed. Jumbo Seafood, for instance, offers "stir-fried asparagus with deshelled prawns", while peranakan restaurant Baba Wins' describes its sambal udang as "deshelled prawns stir-fried with pineapple and onions".

It's not just prawns, mind you; crabs and lobsters get it too. In fact, restaurants here often provide a "deshelling service", where, for an extra fee, a crustacean's shell is removed for easy eating. But just because the word is used widely doesn't mean it's kosher. Indeed, a quick search of "deshell" in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) produces a terse one-liner: "No dictionary entries found for 'deshell'."

What the shell?

It's true. The OED - which has been the last word on words for over a century - does not recognise "deshell". It does, however, define "shell" as a transitive verb: "To remove (a seed) from its shell, husk, or pod." Etymologically, it's linked to the German word "schellen", which means "to peel".

The first such use of "shell" occurred in 1562, in Part II of the seminal book, A New Herball, by naturalist William Turner. In a section extolling the virtues of lentils, Mr Turner recommended using "thyrtye granes of Lentilles shelled" to overcome an upset stomach.

(Before you take his advice, though, it's worth noting that this same man also believed that lentils "make a man dream troublesome dreams. They are evil for the head, for the sinews and the lungs". This is according to a modernised transcript of his original 16th century text, reproduced by Cambridge University Press.)

But I digress. Back to the shelled/deshelled debate, which, as Mr Turner has shown, applies not only to seafood but to beans, peas, nuts, and eggs as well.

Even though "deshelled" isn't recognised by the powers that be, an informal poll of friends and colleagues showed that it was far more popular - and more intuitively understood - than "shelled".

To put it bluntly, the general sentiment was: "Who cares what the OED says? I use it, you understand it, so what's the issue? Dictionaries be damned!"

Cue a collective gasp from the grammar police.

I'll admit it. If the English Literature major in me had her way, "deshelled" would be banished far, far away - along with other doltish specimens such as "irregardless" and "brang".

Still, my investigation into the history of "deshell" has been humbling. It has uncovered a truth most inconvenient to sticklers: That the boundaries of lexical acceptability are porous, even arbitrary.

After all, if one can debone a fish, why can't she also deshell a prawn? For, indeed, the OED recognises "debone" as a transitive verb, with the definition: "to remove the bones from a piece of meat or fish". It notes that the word was "formed within English, by derivation" - meaning that "de" was added to "bone", much like the "de" in "deshell".

In addition, "debone" wasn't always the word of choice, either; "bone" was actually used long before its usurper gained traction. While "debone" was first employed in 1876 in the San Francisco Chronicle (in relation to a sheep carcass), "bone" was in use much earlier - as early as 1494, when it appeared in one of the Acts of Parliament under Henry the VII's reign, in relation to a fish fillet.

Somewhere along the line, however, "debone" became commonplace enough to gain admittance into the OED - never mind that there's still no such thing as a deboning knife, only a boning one. If nothing else, all of this just shows how marvellously idiosyncratic the English language can be. And while that may be a constant source of frustration for second-language learners and purists alike, I think it's actually a good thing.

The fact is, English is a living, breathing language - and it has to be, if it is to remain relevant to its users. We ought to be glad the language continues to evolve, because that means it's actually being used. The same can't be said for other tongues that are slowly fading into obsolescence.

According to Global Language Monitor, around 5,400 new words are created each year. Less than a quarter of these make it into the OED, but the vast majority do not.

Perhaps "deshell" will soon be one of the lucky new entrants.

Until then, feel free to use the word with pride; you can always tell pernickety types that you are simply ahead of your time.