lundi 8 novembre 2010

Shellac, shellacking

Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jonathan Goldberg, que je remercie. Une traduction en français sera publiée prochainement.

After the upsets suffered by the Democratic Party in the recent USA mid-term elections, President Obama said in his press conference, "I'm not recommending that every future President take a shellacking like I did last night".


The noun ‘shellacking’ and the verb ‘to shellac’ (or, more commonly, ‘to be shellacked’) have undergone an evolution, described below,  whereas the noun ‘shellac, meaning varnish, has retained its original meaning.

Definition of shellacking: a decisive defeat

Example: <…suffered a shellacking at the hands of a vastly superior opposition.>

Verb form: to shellac (1)

Antonyms: success, triumph, victory, win

Source: Merriam Webster

Definition: to strike repeatedly and severely; to batter; to defeat decisively
Source: The American Heritage Dictionary.

According to World Wide Words (November 6, 2010), shellac was once the most common form of varnish. It 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. The English noun “lacquer" (2) also derives from lac: in its original form this was shellac dissolved in alcohol. This is consistent with the present French word for shellac: gomme-laque.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymolime.com), the English noun ‘lacquer’ comes from the French word lacre, a variant of lacca, meaning ‘resinous substance’, from the Arabic lakk, from the Persian lak.

The online dictionary states that the noun ‘lacquer’ has existed in English since the 1570s, the noun ‘shellac’ from 1713 and the verb ‘to shellac’ from 1876. In this sense they are commonly used in the woodworking trade.


One company claims to have registered a trade mark for the word to describe its nail varnish, marketed as Shellac Hybrid Nail Color.


World Wide Words explains that ‘shellacking’ and ‘shellacked’, in their original sense,   were commonly used in American newspapers in the late nineteenth century. Gramophone records were manufactured from materials impregnated with shellac. Straw hats, fabrics and canvas tents were waterproofed with it. And it was used
as a form of hair lacquer. ‘Shellacked’ evolved into ‘plastered’ (or drunk, as in modern English slang).

The terms ‘to shellac’ and ‘to be shellacked’ in the sense in which President Obama used the latter form, go back to the 1920s.
Within a few years from first being used in the figurative sense of being drunk,  the meaning of ‘to be shellacked’ evolved from ‘to be drunk’ to ‘to be soundly beaten’ in sports, particularly in baseball and boxing.

Interestingly, the figurative uses of these words have not left American shores for 90 years and are little known in the rest of the English-speaking world. Perhaps that may change following Obama’s use of the word.

(1) It is unusual for an English word to end in ‘ac’. The word ending ‘ack’ is much more common. The spelling of ‘shellacking’ conforms with this rule. 

(2) Although lacquer is a noun in English and not in French, that word does serve as a verb in French, which would be translated in American English as ‘to paint in enamel’ and in British English as ‘to paint in gloss’, or simply to varnish.

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