Thursday, 4 November 2010

On shellacking

A correspondent (from Radio 4's 'World At One') rings up to ask me about the origins of shellacking, which has received a new lease of life thanks to President Obama's use of it yesterday. How did shellac develop the meaning of 'thrashing, beating'? There's no obvious link, she said.

True. To see what happened, you have to know the intermediate stage in the development of this word. The original meaning of the verb 'to varnish with shellac' (a type of resin) is known from the late 19th century. Anything that had been 'shellacked' would have a nice rosy tinge. By the 1920s, in the USA, this effect had evidently been enough to motivate a slang use of the word meaning 'drunk'. Rosey, illuminated, and plastered show similar developments - all early 20th-century slang.

At the same time, drunks were also being described using such words as busted, bombed, crashed, and thrashed. So it's not surprising to see these words sharing their associations. The connotations of thrashing transferred to shellac, which then developed its later slang sense of 'badly beaten'. I've only every heard this used in US English - but all that is about to change. I predict it will turn up in the House of Commons within the next few days.

So, drink is the link.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I may be that truncheons were shellacked with black shellac and baseball bats also (normal shellac). I also (from a dim and distant memory) remember the phrase "knocked the shellac off", so it may be the act of hitting someone with a truncheon so hard that the shellac came off the truncheon and left a mark on the 'victim' or in sports - baseball, to hit a ball so hard that it took the shellac off the bat.

Anonymous said...

the above comment is the smartest and most intelligent post i've seen all over the internet. kudos.

Dicc said...

His use of 'shellacking' seems to me a euphemistic variant of 'bollocking' which can mean much the same in this context. The other thing that 'shellac' immediately brings to mind is those highly fragile 78 rpm records that shatter with the slightest careless mishandling and I have a very vague semi-memory of having heard it used it used verbishly to mean 'shattered'.

DC said...

The fragility angle is a very interesting one. I wonder if anyone can find a citation for it.

Anonymous said...

This comment isn't related to your post in any way but I'd like to ask, may I know what's the difference between "You're welcome" and "You're welcomed" as a response to thank you? Wouldn't the latter be more grammatically 'correct'?

Thank you very much!

DC said...

I wouldn't normally post an off-topic comment, but this one allows me to make a point: please check the blog before sending in queries, as often a point will have been dealt with already. In this case, see the post for 18 November 2009.

Colin said...

Shellacking turns up in the current issue of Private Eye (12-25 Nov. 2010) on page 6:
...Northern Rock received such a shellacking over Hoffman's pay-off that within 24 hours the bank had announced that he would waive the "golden goodbye"...

DC said...

Might have guessed Eye would be in there first!

DC said...

Harry Wood writes to say that he remembers being threatened with a shellacking back in the 1950s. He was brought up in Manchester and his paternal grandparents were from the Oldham and Hollinwood areas. His grandfather regularly used the expression.

This certainly adds a fresh dimension to my post, as it's the first piece of evidence of a British usage in the early part of this century.

Anonymous said...

Back in the days of yore, kids had to submit to boot polish on the derriere when they were caught brown nosing a prefect. Shellac, another description for polish, high gloss, thus I ass_u_med it was a form of punishment, before reading the modern version or explanation this fancy polish created so much interest in the world of the Web.

Ignoramus or one that failed 11 + nearly 4 score minus a couple.
Please forgive the mangling of the Queens language.

DC said...

I see no mangling! Just another interesting theory.

FJG said...

Sounds like a good word for 'Call My Bluff".
As Obama has used it, and he is (rightly I believe for the present) considered an opinion former or even role model for many in the world, do you think the meaning he attributes will stay with the word?
More generally, is it valid to imagine that some language has predominated in history due to its use by social leaders (elected or imposed) ?
Some language,naturally, like fashion, is relatively ephemeral, and some more durable.

DC said...

Well it's not just him, as the OED has examples from others in this sense, so yes, I think it'll stay. I've since heard it several times in the UK.

Re your other point, the best way of answering it is to point you towards Nicholas Ostler's excellent book, Empires of the World, which reviews the factors which make a powerful language. Personalities certainly play their part.

Patrick Jackson said...

I am going to get well and truly lacquered up now. Cheers!

Nick said...

I just shellac people in baseball. LOL

trenchardcleats said...

And there was me thinking that shellac was french polish ...

Well, almost. Shellac (resin derived from beetles) dissolved in alcohol is applied to furniture in a similar method to bulling boots ... the layer left is uber-shiny and rich, but astonishingly fragile ...

Go figure, as they say.

Anonymous said...

not actually shedding any more light on the matter but merely to add note that in French you can use 'laminé' to describe a beating (as in at sport). Maybe something along the same lines?