“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Word Smithing: Shellacking

Thank you for the shellacking, President Obama

The US President has provided an extremely useful addition to the lexicon, says Jenny McCartney.

By Jenny McCartney
Published: 7:00PM GMT 06 Nov 2010

New word for the lexicon: Barack Obama described his electoral distress as a "shellacking"

The midterm elections in America have been surprisingly rich in phrase-making. First came “Mama Grizzly”, which Sarah Palin approvingly applied to a coterie of gung-ho Republican women with enormous teeth and gigantic, glossy hair, who call to mind those unsettlingly focused dames from James Thurber’s cartoons. They are, I fear, an infinitely more resilient breed than the “Grizzly Mama”, which I become when roused before dawn by the squawk of a toddler.

Then Barack Obama was kind enough to describe his electoral distress as a “shellacking”, which means a pasting. It has a nice touch of lip-smacking despair, and deserves wider usage, especially as the weather turns harsh and the nation descends into one vast snuffle. It could serve to describe a hangover (“What a night! Shellacked today”) or a sudden illness (“At home, shellacked with the flu”).

Last week, my computer was behaving erratically: shutting things down, randomly erasing chunks of text. It coughed up enigmatic little messages about “not enough quota” or “application error”. But I knew instantly what was wrong: the weary machine was completely shellacked.
From the Visual Thesaurus:

The Story Behind Obama's "Shellacking"

Four years ago, when then-President George W. Bush surveyed the losses suffered by congressional Republicans in the midterm elections, he memorably called it a "thumping." On Wednesday, President Obama used a similarly colorful term to describe his party's electoral woes. "I'm not recommending for every future President that they take a shellacking like I did last night," he said at his press conference. That comment led many to wonder, how didshellacking come to describe a thorough defeat?

Shellac is a kind of resin made from the secretions of a tropical insect known as the lac. It has had many practical applications over the years, from the varnish on hardwood floors to gramophone records. The word entered the English language around 1700, combining shell and lac. (It's a translation of the French phrase, laque en ├ęcailles, "lac formed into thin plates.") In the 19th century, shellac developed a verb sense meaning "to coat with shellac," as a wood finish.

In the 1920s, the verb shellac started being used for slangier purposes in American English. Its passive participle,shellacked, turned up in a widely syndicated 1922 newspaper article explaining "flapper" slang to baffled parents. In the April 7, 1922 Milwaukee Sentinel, the article appeared under the headline, "Fathers and Mothers Must Learn Flapper Talk to Know What the Younger Generation Are Saying":

Daughter: "...After that we drifted to a couple of the clubs, and both the boys got beautifully shellacked."
Mother: "Shellacked! I don't understand."
Daughter: "Jammed, both of them."

An accompanying glossary explained that these were new slang terms for drunkenness: "Jammed: Intoxicated, bolognied, pie-eyed, piffled, shot, shellacked, canned, out like a light, stewed to the hat, potted, jiggered, tanked." (And if you want a few thousand more synonyms, check out Paul Dickson's book, Drunk: The Definitive Drinker's Dictionary.)

Why would flappers equate intoxication with being covered in varnish? That was beyond the understanding of "Mother" in the colloquy, but we can take some educated guesses. Evan Morris at The Word Detective conjectures:

I would guess that it comes from the fact that shellacking is often the last step in furniture manufacture, so when someone is "shellacked," he or she is absolutely, positively finished and done. The "very drunk" sense of "shellac" may also be a reference to liquor so strong (or cheap) that it tastes like shellac.

My own theory is that the youth of the 1920s hit upon the word as a way to convey an extremely stuporous condition, as if one were sealed up with shellac. Its obvious model is plastered, which the OED dates to 1915 as a term for drunkenness. Perhaps shellacked suggested an even further descent into inebriation, since a shellac varnish could be seen as more substantial than plaster. ("I wasn't just plastered, I was shellacked!")

A couple of years after the flapper story, the verb shellac surfaced in a very different context: boxing. In pugilistic reporting, it could be used as a transitive verb, meaning "to pummel thoroughly." The earliest example I've found is from 1924:

The smart Mr. Shevlin was biding his time, however, and when the opportunity came in the third he took full advantage of it and shellacked Norton plenty, ripping both hands to the mid-section with much power behind each drive.
Evening Tribune (Providence, R.I.), June 3, 1924

More frequently, it was used as verbal noun, shellacking, to describe a harsh beating:

At the end of the third round the Tiger was giving his man a thorough shellacking against the ropes.
—Indiana (Penn.) Evening Gazette, Feb. 27, 1925

As long as I live I shall never forget the beating I received at the hands of Joe Rivers... What a shellacking I got.
—Los Angeles Times, Mar. 1, 1925 ("My Hardest Fight" by Johnny Dundee, originally in RingMagazine)

What was the connection between the drunken flappers and the pummeled boxers? In both cases, they might feel dazed to the point of immobility, like they were dipped in shellac. A boxer who has been metaphorically shellacked would quickly hit the canvas.

Very soon, the shellacking of the boxing world was extended to other sports, like baseball. Here, an unsuccessful pitcher is the one suffering the beatdown:

The Tigers brought their percentage up to the .500 mark by taking a double fall out of the Indians, 4 to 1, and 7 to 4. Dauss pitched laudable ball in the first game and Karr got a shellacking in the second.
—Atlantic (Iowa) News-Telegraph, June 30, 1925

So the groundwork for Obama's shellacking was already laid by sportswriters 85 years ago. As the term caught on, whatever connection it might have had to the substance shellac faded away, so that now the original metaphorical leap is hard to reconstruct. Some sources suggest the slang term first gained traction in the criminal underworld and prisons, which would make its origins even murkier.

Regardless of that early history, I believe shellac was ultimately successful in the "beating" sense for reasons having to do with the sound of the word. The first syllable, shell, is also a verb meaning "to bombard" (from the noun shellreferring to an explosive projectile). And the second syllable, -ac, is reminiscent of such words as whack, smack, and attack. Thanks to all of these similar-sounding words, it is easy to understand a shellacking as a drubbing or trouncing, without worrying too much about what it once had to do with varnished floors.

Update: On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Garson O'Toole reports an even earlier baseball usage, predating my boxing examples. A headline for the Hartford Courant of June 25, 1923 reads, "Luque's Streak Ends When Cubs Shellac Reds, 2 to 0."


  1. It amused me hearing Obama use the word "shellacking". My father used the word and when he used it, it was best to stop what you were doing and change course.

  2. It leads me to believe that Obama may have heard that word from his grandfather.

    An interesting insight into the man.

  3. Mom always used shellacking. Also thingamabobber, pakin (pumpkin) punk for sick, and decabobbulated. There's some more can't think of right now, but she was big on words like that.

  4. Pakin I know you feel punk and decabobbulated but if you don't take the thingamabobber for you temp reading you're getting a shellacking.

    That was my mom.

  5. Maureen Dowd

    Rummy and Cheney knew how to play W.; when they offered to resign, he was so impressed with their loyalty, he let them stay. Besides, W. writes, “there was no obvious replacement for Don.” How about ... anybody?

    He was “shocked” that there were no W.M.D., though it should have been an obvious possibility that the proud, decimated Saddam might want to look tough in front of his neighbors. And W. was taken aback by the Iraq insurgency, though when you toss a ruthless ruling class into the street, you should expect a rumble.

    When W. could have acted to try to prevent real disasters — Osama’s attack on 9/11, the fiend’s escape at Tora Bora, the financial meltdown — he was oblivious. When he jumped in pre-emptively, as in Iraq, it was because he and Cheney had conjured up fake disasters out of their own paranoia and obsession with proving their toughness.

    Yet if W.’s decision-making leaves something to be desired, his story-telling is good. He writes of a visit to Russia, when Putin showed him his black Labrador, Koni. “Bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney,” Putin bragged.

    Later, when W. recounted this to Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, Harper drolly noted, “You’re lucky he only showed you his dog.”

  6. Who Killed Chandra Levy?

    I recently asked two liberal friends "Who killed Chandra Levy?"I was referring, of course, to the 24-year-old congressional intern who went missing in DC in the summer of 2001 after a morning jog. (A dog-walker discovered her remains over a year later.)

    One friend responded, “That Democratic congressman she was seeing.” The other answered “Gary Condit”--referring to the same person. This is the middle-aged, married man with whom Levy had been having an affair. When I told them the truth--that an illegal alien from El Salvador, Ingmar Guandique, was arrested last year for her murder--my friends were shocked and speechless. They, like most Americans, were glued to their television screens in 2001. And yet there was practically a media blackout when Guandique was arrested.

    Why wasn’t the closure of Chandra’s murder splashed all over the airwaves? Could it be because Guandique, already convicted for assaulting two other joggers, didn’t fit the rosy media picture of the undocumented as the victimized? I imagine that if the suspect were a white conservative, his identity would have been emblazoned in the headlines for weeks.

    But liberals and the media don’t want the public to consider the full story about illegal immigrants. Obama and his allies need us to believe that all illegals are like that kindly maid or the congenial, hard-working gardener. While many illegal immigrants are law-abiding, a number of them are not. Some have fled their own countries because of criminal behavior. Others are drug smugglers or assassins, part of the Mexican cartel.

  7. the end of the thread on Obama the orator.

    We certainly have an interesting cast here.

    The Cleaning Lady said...
    Biggest Holders of US Government Debt

    Sun Nov 07, 04:47:00 AM EST

    The Cleaning Lady said...
    Speaking of which, someone tweaked me not too long ago for the paranoid suggestion that 'things' could done under the radar.

    Rumor has it that the research coming out of Los Alamos is mind-bending.

    Or choose your own word. But in the midst of the financial, geopolitical and cultural chaos that assaults our conscious collective mind 24/7, isolated enclaves are proceeding with research and innovation. And it's being done quietly.

    Sun Nov 07, 05:04:00 AM EST

    Deuce said...
    CL, a fascinating slide show. It looks as if the secret to great and increasing wealth is holding US debt.

    Sun Nov 07, 05:21:00 AM EST

    Deuce said...
    US debt, the US contribution to World progress. No irony intended.

    Sun Nov 07, 05:23:00 AM EST

    bob said...
    CL, don't get started on Coast to Coast, the old Art Bell Show. You won't get any sleep from worrying about Area 51.


    Sun Nov 07, 05:26:00 AM EST

    The Cleaning Lady said...
    You have to pay to play Deuce.

    RE Area 51: It was either Bill Clinton or George HW Bush who let slip to a reporter in casual conversation, you wouldn't believe it if I told you. Art Bell knows.

    I'm gone for awhile.

    Sun Nov 07, 05:48:00 AM EST

    The Cleaning Lady said...
    Beam me up Scottie.

    My work here is done.

    Sun Nov 07, 06:03:00 AM EST

  8. .

    "We must never compromise on our commitment to end this era of runaway federal spending, borrowing, bailouts, deficits and debt," Pence said. "We must never shrink from our stand for a strong national defense, fiscal responsibility, individual liberty, and traditional moral values."

    Mike Pence

    What does it mean? Mom and apple pie, bushwa and bloviating. Like most of the GOP leadership, Pence offers us pablum but no specifics (other than extend all the tax cuts and leave business alone).

    A year ago, I thought Mike Pence was one of the good guys in D.C. A fiscal conservative who could get things done if the group he led within the GOP caucus ever attained real power. It's amazing how your opinion of these guys can drop the more you get to know them.

    He has resigned his leadership post (third in line in the GOP caucus) so that he can run for executive office (governor or as most think president). Probably irrelevant to any but himself.

    Saw him today on This Week in a debate with David Stockman. Stockman, a smart guy but also one indicted although not prosecuted for fraud in his financial dealings. Pence argued for continuation of 'all' Bush tax cuts. Stockman argued to have them all expire and to push for massive spending cuts. He also argued that Bernanke and the Fed were whack jobs.

    Stockman has been quoted as saying, “I invest in anything that Bernanke can’t destroy, including gold, canned beans, bottled water and flashlight batteries."

    Both guys are idealogues. Stockman was one of the first 'supply siders' before he saw the light.

    I can't agree fully with either of these guys although I tend to go more along with Stockman's current thinking. I agree with the huge spending cuts but as noted the other day favor some tax relief (payroll or the extension of some of the Bush cuts.)


  9. John Kasich, served in the House, just elected governor of Ohio. I look for him to run sometime. To use Biden's word, he's 'clean' -er than the rest.