How 'Shellacking' Came To Mean 'Defeat'
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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