A wave of puzzlement encircled the globe after President Barack Obama said in a press conference on 3 November 2010 following the mid-term elections, “I’m not recommending for every future President that they take a shellacking like I did last night”. As the word is mostly known in the US (though Australians use it as well), queries mainly came from outside the country. However, many Americans proved to be unfamiliar with it, or came to wonder for the first time how the word came to mean a serious defeat.
Shellac was once the most common form of lacquer. Its name comes from French laque en écailles, lac in thin plates. Lac, a protective resin secreted by the lac insect, was prepared by drying, melting and pouring it to form thin flakes. Lac is from the Hindi lakh, a hundred thousand, perhaps in reference to the fast-breeding nature of the insect or the great number needed to produce a significant quantity of lacquer. Lac is also the origin of lacquer — in its original form this was shellac dissolved in alcohol. Lac was used in its homeland as a scarlet dye for silk.
The terms shellacking and shellacked were very common in their literal senses in American newspapers in the late nineteenth century. To judge from these reports, almost anything could be improved by coating it with shellac, not just furniture or floors. Gramophone records were manufactured from materials impregnated with it. Straw hats, fabrics and canvas tents were waterproofed with it. And it was used as hair lacquer. That was a fashion of the bright young things of the early 1920s, the boys in particular, when the slang term first turns up:
Daughter — “A friend of Harry’s we met there was the darbs, and 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.”
Ogden Standard Examiner, 12 Apr. 1922, in an article reproduced from the New York Sunday Herald under the headline, “English Language as Spoken by the Younger Generation”. The piece mostly consists of a glossary, which explains jammed as “intoxicated, bolognied, pie-eyed, piffled, shot, shellacked, canned, out like a light, stewed to the hat, potted, jiggered, tanked”. A darb was “a person with money, who can be relied upon to pay the check”.
How did shellacked take on the idea of being drunk? Could the fashion among young men for shellacked hair have been part of the stimulus for its creation? That was probably part of the story. More significantly, this was during the Prohibition era from 1920 to 1933. One of the few legal usages of alcohol was as a solvent, for example in shellac lacquer. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported on the discussion list of the American Dialect Society that he had unearthed references to shellac drunks:
It is said that the habitual drunkard, when he cannot get whiskey, must have alcohol of some kind. To obtain this they have been known to purchase pure shellac in large quantities, and give it the blotter treatment. This consists of dipping the blotter in the shellac, withdrawing it and squeezing the blotter into another receptacle. The blotter will absorb the alcohol. From observation of the case mentioned above, the shellac drunk is anything but a pleasant experience.
The Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), 14 Jul, 1922.
This establishes the connection as well as we can ever expect for a slang term nearly a century old.
Within a couple of years, shellacked had evolved from being drunk to being soundly defeated in various sports, including baseball and boxing:
Giants beat Reds in ninth; Cubs shellac Boston Braves
A headline in the Hartford Courant, 26 May 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, RI), 3 Jun. 1924.
How that second shift happened is guesswork. If the only sport involved were boxing, we might try to make a link through punch-drunk, but that doesn’t work for baseball. Several writers have plausibly suggested that the word, with its strong consonants, suggests some sort of violent action, perhaps a combined shelling and whacking.
Whatever the exact chain of development, any mental link with the lacquer is now tenuous at best.