How Did “Getting Shellacked” Become a Negative?

How Did “Getting Shellacked” Become a Negative?

When or where or why did the term “getting shellacked” turn into a negative cliché?

Michael Dresdner: Probably the same place getting ‘rubbed out,’ another finishing term, got its pejorative bent. But my favorite derogatory finish reference has to be from the play/movie “Guys and Dolls,” a Damon Runyon work glorifying gamblers and gently mocking the Salvation Army. In it, Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson is explaining to Sister Sarah Brown that a ‘chump’ is a sucker who would buy ‘anything with varnish on it.’ ‘You mean like a solid gold watch for a dollar?’ she asks. ‘This is truly a chump,’ confirms Brando.

Rob Johnstone: Great question … I have no idea! And I must admit, I’ve taken a bit of a beating trying to get the answer. I tried looking the term up in our ultra-big Webster’s Third Annual Unabridged Dictionary. It only gave the definitions, which included: to defeat decisively or ignominiously (apparently referring to my Minnesota Vikings in their championship game with the New York Giants last January). It went on with: administer a beating; to drub.

Shellac has a French derivation, but my guess is that the usage having to do with getting whopped-up-real-good, has its home here in America. I tried cross referencing to the term “shelled”–as in what is happening to my Twins’ pitchers lately–but that term is of Old English extraction. The various etymology based web sites were, of course, no help. So unless some verbally enriched (word geek) reader has more information, we will just have to take our shellacking and go home.

Ian Kirby: Check with Bill Safire of the New York Times.

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