Verbal Energy

Obama brings shellac back into fashion

Borrowing a word from the furniture business, the president reminds us of the importance of sound symbolism in political rhetoric.

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    President Obama has brought shellac back into fashion.
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All sorts of meanings have been read into the results of the midterm congressional elections. Here's one of my takeaway messages: Never forget the importance of sound symbolism in political rhetoric.

Just look at what President Obama has done for shellac lately.

Here's what he said in his Nov. 3 press conference, from the official White House transcript: "I'm not recommending for every future President that they take a shellacking like they – like I did last night. (Laughter.) I'm sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons."

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The one-word instant quote out of all this was, of course, "shellacking." Note how subtly it was introduced, in a dependent clause uttered in reference to a vague "every future president," followed by a pause for parenthetical "laughter."

But note also how the press corps can sniff a headline out of all those complex sentences: "President admits to taking a 'shellacking.'"

Postpresidential biographies of Obama will, I predict, have index entries for "shellacking," and meanwhile, the word, often without quotes, is all over the Web as shorthand for "where the president is now." Shellacking is common in sports writing: Denver Broncos vs. Kansas City Chiefs, 49 to 29; Cleveland Browns vs. New England Patriots, 34-14, the Giants over the Rangers in the World Series, inter al.

Shellac as a noun meaning varnish goes back to the early 18th century. It began to be used as a verb about a century and a half later. The colloquial sense of "to beat soundly" dates to 1920, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

The usage is pretty familiar to Americans, less so to English speakers outside the United States.

The BBC Magazine devoted an entire article to Mr. Obama's curious idiom. The piece was illustrated with a photo of a traditional cabinetmaker at work with a caption reading, "Shellacking: This man is giving it rather than taking it."

But as The Economist's language blog, "Johnson," noted, in a post playfully titled "I'll give you a good varnishing," furnituremaking is an odd source of metaphor here. And how did shellac, and not some related word from the world of cabinetry, get tied up with crushing defeat, at the ballot box or on the ball field? The fellow in the Beeb's photo does not, after all, look very scary.

"Johnson" offers an explanation that sounds good to me:

I'm going to hazard a guess that it owes its new meaning to some kind of loose free-associative aural adaptation: it sounds like both "shelling" and "whacking," or even more loosely, it contains a satisfying rhythm of sharp-sounding consonants, and thus wound up being used in the sense of destruction because it "sounded right."

One can argue that by describing his party's defeat as a "shellacking," Obama described the situation as worse than it is to make the reality seem less awful by comparison.

After all, one can be "soundly beaten," or, to use President George W. Bush's term under similar circumstances, "thumped," and still rebound. That's not possible to whatever gets literally shellacked. A tree cut down and made into a piece of furniture is not going to start growing again.

On the other hand, it may be apt that a president known as a gifted orator turned, in his time of defeat, to an idiom derived from notions of "polish."

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