Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

November 2010

Boom Shellack-a-lack-a!

Earlier this month, the United States held their ‘mid-term’ elections (so called because they occur in the middle of a sitting president’s term of office). The media on both sides of the
Atlantic promised it would be a referendum on the Obama administration so far, and indeed, the
morning after significant Republican gains, President Obama characterized the election as a ‘shellacking’. His use of this word received nearly as much press coverage as the defeat itself, with major news outlets filing pieces on the origin and history of shellacking, and how it came to mean ‘a severe beating’.

For those who missed the news coverage, shellac was originally a noun referring to the yellow resin secreted by the ‘lac’ insect, used in varnishes and polishes, etc. The word entered English in the 18th Century and is in part a translation of the French phrase laque en écailles or 'lac in scales (thin plates)'. In the 20th Century the noun also came to mean a gramophone record made of shellac.

Interestingly, all the verb senses of this word are originally US or North American.  From the 19th Century onward, to shellac meant 'to coat or treat something with shellac varnish'. The sense in which President Obama used the word, i.e. 'to defeat utterly', goes back to the 1930s. Its original meaning was 'to beat or thrash', i.e. to give someone a physical beating, and some early citations come from organized crime or gangster slang. Our Collins corpus has 104 citations of shellacking, almost all of which mean 'a beating’ or ‘a defeat', and quite a few of these come from American sports, such as:

            The Texans haven't forgotten a 38-3 shellacking last year.

In terms of why a word that originally meant 'to varnish' would come to mean 'beat up or utterly defeat', no one really knows. Slang, unfortunately, isn't always logical, and because it is inherently non-standard, slang usages often go unstudied until they break into mainstream language (like, say, when a prominent world leader uses them), at which point their origins are often lost.

However, we can compare shellacking with two other words which have overlapping slang senses. Plaster and paste can both mean 'to beat or thrash' or 'to defeat utterly and completely'.

Of the two, plaster is originally US, while paste is more widely used throughout the English-speaking world. Again, their origins are uncertain, but there is evidence for plaster to mean 'to shell or bombard excessively'. This sense originated in World War I.

In US English, plaster the noun refers to 'plaster of Paris'. Presumably the idea behind the WWI sense of plastering was that the thoroughness of them bombardment spread damage across enemy ranks the way a builder would spread plaster of Paris all over a flat surface. Eventually, plaster came to mean 'pommel someone with your fists', probably echoing the World War I usage (likening the repeated punches to the bombs falling). This sense originated in boxing, and spread from there.

Because plaster of Paris is a kind of paste, it is easy to see how this meaning became transferred to paste the verb, especially in countries like the UK, where plaster usually means ‘bandage’. Varnishing an object with shellac, presumably, also involves spreading the substance over the surface. This may be the link between shellacking, plastering, and pasting. Hypothetically speaking, plastering could have come first, and as it took hold, other nouns indicating a spread of some viscous material over a hard surface also developed ‘beating’ senses by analogy.

But there is a footnote to this story.

The most common form of plaster in US English is the past participle, plastered, which means 'excessively drunk'. Interestingly, there is corpus evidence of shellacked meaning 'drunk' as well. The relationship between being drunk and being beaten up is not entirely clear; however, in both cases the ‘victim’ is liable to stumble about in semi-consciousness. It is interesting to note that the phrase punch-drunk dates from the same period as plastered (early 20th century). 

Robert Groves