Voguish Vocabulary: Shellacking

I think it’s important to point out as well that a couple of great communicators, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were standing at this podium two years into their presidency getting very similar questions. … This is something that I think every president needs to go through….

Now, I’m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night. I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons. โ€” President Barack Obama, Nov. 3, 2010 press conference offering explanations for his party’s defeat in the mid-term elections. Obama’s 2010 “Shellacking” is Like Bush’s 2006 “Thumping”, CBS News, Nov. 3, 2010

The President used the slang word shellacking to describe his party’s drubbing last night. Shellac is an organic sealer that is often used to create a hard, glossy finish on fine furniture. It is a substance secreted by the lac beetle, which must make it rather difficult to produce. This probably explains why synthetic polyurethane varnish has largely taken its place.

But shellacking has a different meaning that goes back to at least 1931, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s also an example of the verbification of nouns, a favorite language phenomenon of mine. Shellacking is how you describe applying a layer of shellac to an object. That’s verbification (a word I’ve made up and have copyrighted). An extreme example of verbification would be: “How can we incentivize people to turn out and vote?”

Shellacking took on a new meaning sometime in the early 1900’s.

shellacking, vbl. n., a slang term for a defeat or a drubbing. First used in print in 1931 by E.H. Lavine, “When this method failed, as it invariably did, he would leave the room and the shellacking continued.”

Example from Scripture: “But the LORD told me to tell you, ‘Do not attack, for I am not with you. If you go ahead on your own, you will take a shellacking by your enemies.’ ” โ€” Deuteronomy 1:42

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  1. There’s no reason to misquote and misuse the Bible.

  2. Charlie, I can appreciate the humor.

  3. Tina Bridges says

    And, I thought it clever when I read the Deut. verse at the end, thinking now many will run to look that up just to see if that word is really there. Ok, maybe not many, but I paused before I got it! Misquoting causes people to read their Bible? ๐Ÿ˜‰