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How 'Shellacking' Came To Mean 'Defeat'

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How 'Shellacking' Came To Mean 'Defeat'

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How 'Shellacking' Came To Mean 'Defeat'

How 'Shellacking' Came To Mean 'Defeat'

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NPR's Robert Siegel and Michele Norris contemplate the word "shellacking" as used by President Obama on Wednesday, in talking about the election successes by Republicans in the midterm contests. How did the name of a substance used to provide the final coat on paint or other surfaces come to be used to express a drubbing?

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Yesterday, in an unvarnished comment at his post-election news conference, President Obama said this.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A shellacking - that is, a decisive defeat, according to Merriam-Webster's. The term has an old-timey feel to it, like something used by a stern father decades ago.

NORRIS: Maybe that's because it has an older meaning: a finish for furniture made with lac - L-A-C - as in lacquer.

SIEGEL: You mean lac, a resinous secretion of an insect deposited on trees and used in making shellac, a varnish.

NORRIS: Thanks, Random House.

SIEGEL: So how did shellac make the linguistic leap to defeat? Jesse Sheidlower, of the Oxford English Dictionary, was half-expecting our call about this today. But he didn't find a definitive answer. He ruled out origins in sports. And he said shellac smelled of alcohol and became slang for drunk. He says it was prison slang.

NORRIS: From crime to politics, meaning washed up or trounced - which is, in case you missed it, exactly what happened to the Democratic Party in Tuesday's elections.

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