Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu May 15, 2008 6:26 am

In Monday’s news I read the following:
<“Barack Obama today launched -- and ended -- what has been a cursory campaign effort on his part in West Virginia, where it appears he's headed for a shellacking in Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary.”—Los Angeles Times, 12 May>
Words and phrases go in and out of style and I thought this was one that had gone out of style because I hadn’t heard it for a very long time. To ‘give someone a shellacking,’ ‘to take a shellacking,' ‘to shellack’ someone were very common household phrases when I was growing up (> 50 years ago). Fathers would say to their children, “Pull one more stunt like that and you’ll get a shellacking.” And it was especially popular in sports with one team ‘shellacking’ another. What I discovered after doing some research is that part of the problem may be that I am going out of style! At least I found no shortage of its use in the print media.

With the younger set, though, it appears from my meager sampling that the expression might be on life support. As an experiment, over the last few days I asked various younger folks, teenagers, etc. (including a graduating high school student and a college student) if they knew what ‘shellac’ meant. No one did in either its Standard English meaning of the coating you put on wood or in the slang sense, which I discuss below. Either the times they are achangin’ or I have taken a very anomalous sampling of youngsters (which is possible).

Since the various forms of SHELLAC may be unfamiliar to some, and since I found that I was actually unaware of a few of the meanings, definitions and quotes are provided below. Here also is a link to a discussion by Word Detective.



1) lac [a resinous secretion of the lac insect deposited on trees and used in making shellac] that has been purified and formed into thin sheets, used for making varnish. [[Thin sheets! I didn’t know that.]]

2) a varnish made by dissolving this material in alcohol or a similar solvent.

3) A phonograph record made of a breakable material containing shellac, especially one to be played at 78 r.p.m.: an LP that can hold nearly 10 times as much as the old shellac. [[I didn’t know that either]]

I found the following interesting quote related to (3) with shellac used here as an adjective:
<1945 “With a loud roll on the drums, RCA-Victor last week put on the market its first non-breakable phonograph records. Made of a ruby-red, translucent vinyl resin plastic, they cost twice as much ($2 a record) as a 12-inch Victor Red Seal. . . . Cosmopolitan Records, Inc. (Cosmo), . . . is . . . producing 800,000 SHELLAC records a month. After the first of the year, [they expect to be making] 200,000 unbreakable records monthly—selling between 50¢ and 75¢ apiece.”—Time Magazine, 22 October>
SHELLAC/SHELLACK verb transitive

1) To coat or treat with shellac

2) Slang a) To defeat; trounce. b) To thrash soundly

[1713: shell + lac (translation of French laque en écailles, lac in thin plates).]


1) An utter defeat [[drubbing, rout]]: a shellacking their team will remember.

2) a sound thrashing: His father gave him a shellacking for stealing the book.

[1880–85; shellac + -ing] [[Note: This early dating is in disagreement with the OED and American Heritage (see below) and every other source I checked. And in my quote search I couldn’t locate a single pre-1930s example]]


TAKE A SHELLACKING: Be soundly beaten or defeated, as in Our team took quite a shellacking last night. Why being coated with shellac should suggest defeat is not clear. [Slang; circa 1930]

Also see Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang

As far as why SHELLACKING means to be soundly beaten or defeated, no one seems to know for sure (‘origin uncertain’), but I think a pretty good stab was taken by WORD DETECTIVE (see above link) when he said:
<“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.”—Word Detective by Evan Morris>
I can remember when vinyl records were relatively new (and were referred to as unbreakable records), but come to think of it, I don’t recall referring to the older records as ‘shellacs’ or ‘shellac records’ – that might have been just a bit before my time. All we ever called them were ‘records’ and I do remember how those old 78s would chip and crack, and break when you dropped them, and the novelty of the new ‘unbreakables.’

An aside. Sitting on my shelves among antique bottles and other assorted junk (I mean antiques), I have some old Edison cylinder records – probably made of shellac – which I actually haven’t taken a close look at in years. I just picked one up and I’ll describe what I see: The cylindrical containers in which they come are beautiful and that’s the main reason I have them. I acquired these in the early 1970s or so, probably from a porch sale in or around the tiny upstate New York town I was living in. The containers are gorgeous with elaborate red and gold print and filigree. There is a picture of Thomas A. Edison on the front and he looks to be about 40-years-old. The recording is dated April 1908. On a beveled lip on the end of the record itself is engraved ‘Violin’ and the title ‘Down at Finnegan’s Jamboree.’ On top of the container, in a space provided, is written by hand in ink ‘Jamboree.’ The number of the record, 8146, is rubber stamped next to the red ‘No.’ space provided. There is lots of official looking print on the back including the following all in caps:


Eight different patents dates (month, day, and year) are listed on the back with the above. Surrounding the oval of Edison’s picture on the front is written COPYRIGHT 1900 BY THE NATIONAL PHONOGRAPH CO., ORANGE, N.J. U.S.A. Also below the red with gold trim EDISON RECORD on the front is written REGISTERED IN U.S. PATENT OFFICE AUG, 9, 1904 – COPYRIGHT 1904, BY NATIONAL PHONOGRAPH COMPANY. Sixteen florid black on gold Thomas A. Edison signatures appear, 8 ringing the top portion of cylinder and 8 ringing the bottom. Don’t mess with Thomas A!

Interestingly enough another cylinder with the same dates, instead of the big EDISON RECORD on the front has EDISON GOLD MOULDED RECORDS – ECHO ALL OVER THE WORLD. And if you like all these Edison artifacts you’d love what’s written on those snake oil patent medicine bottle labels sitting next to them. But I digress.

OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (with additional quotes from archived sources)


2) slang To beat, thrash, punish.
<1930 “These two bums that Lefty SHELLACKED were members of Red Karfola's gang.”—Gunman by C. F. Coe, iv. page 53> [[OED’s earliest in print of the verb]]

<1930 “Ivy Andrews’ Good Work on the Pitching Mound Helped Albany Club to Win Pennant: . . . This time he [[Andrews]] was successful in vanquishing the opposing forces, despite the fact that he was SHELLACKED rather freely. . . he was able to stand up under pressure and wiggle out of tight holes.”—Oakland Tribune (California), 1 April, page 37> [[my earliest find]]

<1935 “SHELLACK, to punish or beat.”—Glossary of Prison Slang by J. Hargan, page 7>

<1977 “Pitcher McArdle was SHELLACKED for . . . six runs in the first inning.”—Time Magazine, 8 August, page 28/2>

<1990 (article title) “Furniture retailer, an IPO in April, gets SHELLACKED on Wall Street.”— Los Angeles Business Journal, 23 July>

<2006 “"We got SHELLACKED in 2006. We got SHELLACKED for a very important reason. We forgot our Republican roots.”—Baltimore Sun (Maryland), 11 February>

<2008 “Ohio State was SHELLACKED again Monday night in the Bowl Championship Series title game . . . “—New York Times, 8 January>
Hence SHE'LLAC(K)ED participial adjective (b) U.S. slang, intoxicated, ‘plastered.’ [[I didn’t know this either. Not quite sure what the apostrophe is doing there – it didn’t show up in any of the quotes.]]
<1922 SHELLACKED, stewed, bunned, etc.”—Dialect Notes V, page 148>

<1935 “You know, when I first found out about how you'd get SHELLACKED, I thought it was pretty terrible.”—Judgment Day by J. T. Farrel, I. iv. page 85>

<1948 “When a novelty is obvious it seldom lasts very long, e.g., SHELLACKED for drunk.”—American Language Supplement by H. L. Mencken, II. page 644>
In the above Word Detective link, it is suggested that “The ‘very drunk’ sense of ‘shellac’ may also be a reference to liquor so strong (or cheap) that it tastes like shellac.”

SHE’LLAC(K)ING verbal noun

2) A beating or thrashing, a ‘pasting’; a defeat. slang.
<1931 “When this method failed, as it invariably did, he would leave the room and the SHELLACKING continued.” Ibid. “‘SHELLACKING’. . . and numerous other phrases are employed by the police as euphemisms.”—Third Degree: A Detailed and Appalling Exposé of Police Brutality by E. H. Lavine, x. page 121> [[earliest in print of the noun]]

<1941 “The main bulk of the Twenty-ninth Division handed the One Hundred and Fifteenth Regimental Combat Team a SHELLACKING on the combat range today.”—The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 18 September, page 13/1>

<1956 “By the time of the First World War the Protestant Ethic had taken a SHELLACKING from which it would not recover.”—Organisation Man by W. H. Whyte, ii. page 22>

<1960 “‘Ronnie’ left the field to run into the greatest SHELLACKING he had ever had.”—Kings of Rugby by T. McLean, page 56>

<1978 “The Japs can't recover from the SHELLACKING they took at Midway.”—War & Remembrance by Herman Wouk, xxxiii. page 351>

<1997 “. . . the Yankees last night exploded for nine runs . . . in a 10-4 SHELLACKING of the White Sox at Comiskey Park.”—New York Daily News, 19 April>

<2008 “California gets its fair share from what oil companies take and gives taxpayers some benefit from the SHELLACKING we're taking at the pump.”—Sacramento Bee (California), 12 March>
Ken G – May 14, 2008

Re: shellacking

Post by gdwdwrkr » Thu May 15, 2008 10:20 am

A little more about shellac:
The solvent for shellac is alcohol.
Shiny candy (M&Ms) is coated with shellac.
Shellac has been used in electronics as a stabilizing resin.
The best and most expensive furniture finish ever developed is "French Polishing", which uses a teaspoon of shellac and a 55-gallon drum of elbow-grease. The (1800-1820) Federal style's ( what's that elsewhere? Early Regency?) flat surfaces, embellished not with carving but with inlay, were developed, in part, to accomodate this technique.
After being shellacked, the customer is given a good waxing.
Shellac has a limited shelf-life, once dissolved in alcohol. Shellac older than about a year, once brushed on a piece of furniture, will never dry. I learned this the hard way....we had to peel ourselves out of that rocker every time we sat in it.
Last edited by gdwdwrkr on Thu May 15, 2008 4:43 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Re: shellacking

Post by JANE DOErell » Thu May 15, 2008 3:03 pm

I remember shellac and shellacking from childhood, 1940s, and I had never bothered to think of the two words as having anything do do with one another. One was a furniture finish and the other was a threatened discipline. Interesting.

Re: shellacking

Post by p. g. cox » Thu May 15, 2008 3:36 pm

Ken, Your statement, "don't mess with Thomas A" reminded me of one Nikola Tesla who did mess with Thomas A. and won, in the battle of the currents. Edison was a proponent of direct current and Tesla of alternating current. In concert with Westinghouse he beat Edison for the contract to build the hydro-electric power station at Niagara Falls. AC could be transmitted farther and with less loss than could DC making it the more viable system. His statue remains outside the old abandoned transformer building, although not many are aware of it. He literally transformed the society in which we live.
Signature: Pete.

Re: shellacking

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu May 15, 2008 4:57 pm

Pete, You're absolutely right on the Tesla versus Edison A.C./D.C. wars. Tesla was an amazingly accomplished electro-mechanical engineer and physicist, whereas Edison didn't have the math or science background to come up with or understand the intricacies of Tesla's proposed ideas. In fact, when Tesla worked for Edison for a time, Edison dismissed Tesla's A.C. ideas as being too complicated and impractical.

The story of the battle of the electric chair is also interesting. Edison, the developer and proponent of D.C. backed the use of an A.C. electric chair for execution because it would help reinforce the idea that A.C. was dangerous and D.C. was safer. The first execution using the 'chair' (New York 1890) was pretty well botched - a miscalculation on the first jolt (too weak) and another miscalculation on the second with a lot of smoke and burning skin. Nevertheless, the electric chair become the preferred method of execution in the U.S. and is still today an optional alternative to lethal injection in a few states.

When I was growing up in New York City, D.C. was still in use in many neighborhoods and there seemed to be perpetual work of Consolidated Edison street crews going on for years to complete the conversion.

Ken - May 15, 2008

Re: shellacking

Post by russcable » Thu May 15, 2008 5:07 pm

Ken Greenwald wrote:reinforce the idea that A.C. was dangerous
He also travelled around demonstrating the "westinghouse'ing" (as he liked to call it) of stray dogs and cats to demonstrate the dangers. He even managed to westinghouse an elephant which he captured on film and distributed nationwide.

Re: shellacking

Post by p. g. cox » Thu May 15, 2008 10:00 pm

Ken, We're showing our age here. I too grew up in a town that had an area served by DC. It was not until the mid 50s that it was converted to AC. and the old coke-fired power plant with its cooling towers torn down. The coke came from the local gas works that produced coal gas from the destructive distillation of coal. That too is history, superseded by North Sea oil and gas.
The imagination and skill of Tesla has left a legacy that few others could match. Edison's incandescent lamp is now in decline, being replaced by another of Tesla's inventions, the fluorescent lamp.
He was a most interesting, if a bit off-center, person. There's a fine line between genius and insanity.
Wikipedia has a good write-up on him if anyone is interested.
Signature: Pete.

Re: shellacking

Post by Rufus*T*Firefly » Thu Nov 04, 2010 2:22 am

My personal theory is that it derives from the word "shilelagh". A shilelagh whacking could easily become a "shellacking" over a period of time.

Re: shellacking

Post by Ken Greenwald » Thu Nov 04, 2010 5:14 am

Speak of the devil:
<2010 “The president, acknowledging his ‘shellacking‘ in the midterm election, says he'll compromise on many issues. But he and Republicans appear poised for battle over the healthcare overhaul.”—Los Angeles Times (online), 3 November>

Ken – November 3, 2010

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