11

There were clamorous arguments about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of Mr. Donald Trump’s comment, “Hillary Clinton – former first lady, former U.S. senator, former secretary of state, woman got schlonged by then-senator Barack Obama in her 2008 primary run.” at a campaign stop in Michigan on December 21, 2015.

I suspect that Mr. Trump’s phrase in question “(Mrs. Clinton) got schlonged” is a malapropism of “got shellacked,” after reading the following paragraph in the article under the title of “Donald Trump’s ‘shlonged’: A linguistic investigation" in The Washington Post (December 22, 2015).

And headline writers often ransack the language for onomatopoeic synonyms for ‘defeat’ such as drub, whomp, thump, wallop, whack, trounce, clobber, smash, trample, and Obama’s own favorite, shellac (which in fact sounds a bit like shlong).
[emphasis added]

Collins English Dictionary defines “shellac” as:

verb.

  1. to coat or treat an article with a shellac varnish
  2. (U.S. slang) to defeat completely

besides the noun meaning a natural varnish.

So much for a long preamble and apart from right or wrongness of my guess, how did “shellac” come to mean “complete defeat”?

  • 6
    Schlong is from the Yiddish shlang, and refers to the male member. Trump is living up to his reputation (again). As a New Yorker I am sure he knew exactly what he was saying, despite all protestations to the contrary. – Cascabel Mar 29 '16 at 1:54
  • 3
    But the most likely explanation is the most obvious: That getting beaten up was akin to getting "pasted" or figuratively painted. The resulting bruising (which wet shellac on cloth or paper would mimic somewhat) would add to the impression. – Hot Licks Mar 29 '16 at 2:40
  • 1
    But here in one analysis: visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/… – Hot Licks Mar 29 '16 at 2:42
  • 1
    And another: worldwidewords.org/topicalwords/tw-she1.htm – Hot Licks Mar 29 '16 at 2:46
  • 3
    Good gravy. How about a bit of Occam's Razor here, folks? A literal "good shellacking" requires numerous back and forth slaps with a stiff brush - perhaps it is simply a creative extension of this action? – Oldbag Mar 29 '16 at 2:48
10

Shellac is a natural resin, which dissolved in alcohol results in a hard, glossy finish when dry. Since modern synthetics like polyurethane have largely replaced it, most people today, never having worked with shellac before, are no longer familiar with its characteristics or means of application.

Ben Zimmer's 2010 article on Obama's shellacking points out that the first slang use, from the 1920s, was a euphemism for "extremely drunk," suggesting an analogy from another finish in the building trades: plastered. The idea is that like plastered walls or shellacked panelling, a drunk person is "finished," i. e. completely and totally drunk. Neither Zimmer nor another author he cites, however, mentions the most salient feature shared by shellac and the soundly inebriated: they both stink of alcohol.

Zimmer traces the next slang use of shellacking to the boxing ring:

At the end of the third round the Tiger was giving his man a thorough shellacking against the ropes. —Indiana (Penn.) Evening Gazette, Feb. 27, 1925

As long as I live I shall never forget the beating I received at the hands of Joe Rivers... What a shellacking I got. —Los Angeles Times, Mar. 1, 1925 ("My Hardest Fight" by Johnny Dundee, originally in Ring Magazine)

The rather fanciful rationale for this usage comes again from the notion of shellac as being a finish, with overtones of a defeated boxer being covered in shellac à la Han Solo in whatever that black gunk was.

Shellac was used most often on large surfaces — panelling, cabinetwork — and even had a number of marine uses. As the vehicle of the finish was alcohol, shellac had to be applied quickly, often using a large brush, then smoothed before the alcohol evaporated. If we still say "slap on a coat of paint," then that slapping — the sound of a loaded brush hitting a surface — would go double for shellacking, which has to be done far more quickly than with an oil- or water-based finish. An opposing sports team, a disobedient child, and apparently an incumbent president were thus liable to a series of rapid slaps like someone shellacking a boat or panelled room. In this usage, it really is the process of shellacking that gave rise to its metaphorical slang use, not, as with the 1920 drunks, some quality of shellac itself.

An 8" shellac brush An 8" shellac brush.

  • 2
    Well said! The notion of quick back-and-forth slaps with a brush onto a surface fits very neatly. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 21 '18 at 13:47
  • 3
    Bravo! My dad was a do-it-yourselfer... (I was in forced apprenticeship) If he told me to fetch him a shellac brush from the cellar, I had no problem picking it out. Shellac brushes were, by far, the largest paintbrushes in his vast arsenal and the bristles on the edges were worn to a nub. When he sometimes asked me if I "would like a good shellacking" it was not difficult for me to extrapolate his meaning. – Oldbag Jan 21 '18 at 14:52
  • @Oldbag: Thanks for story. I added a picture of a large shellac brush. – KarlG Jan 21 '18 at 15:09
5

Not an exhaustive answer to this question, I wonder if there may be one, but other possible origins of the slang sense of shallac in the sense of defeating.

Curiously World Wide Words, unlike Etymonline predates the slang sense of drunk to that of defeated, and suggests as a possible origin the phonetic strengh and relevance of the combined usage of “shelling with whacking”:

Within a couple of years, shellacked had evolved from being drunk to being soundly defeated in various sports, including baseball and boxing: Giants beat Reds in ninth; Cubs shellac Boston Braves A headline in the Hartford Courant, 26 May 1924.

  • The smart Mr. Shevlin was biding his time, however, and when the opportunity came in the third he took full advantage of it and shellacked Norton plenty, ripping both hands to the mid-section with much power behind each drive. Evening Tribune (Providence, RI), 3 Jun. 1924.

How that second shift happened is guesswork. If the only sport involved were boxing, we might try to make a link through punch-drunk, but that doesn’t work for baseball. Several writers have plausibly suggested that the word, with its strong consonants, suggests some sort of violent action, perhaps a combined shelling and whacking. Whatever the exact chain of development, any mental link with the lacquer is now tenuous at best.

This same theory is suggested also in the Johnson language blog column in The Economist:

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

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."

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.

Also the following source suggest that the usage of “drank” comes earlier than “defeated, beaten”, and just from this former meaning might come the latter:

To see what happened, you have to know the intermediate stage in the development of this word. The original meaning of the verb 'to varnish with shellac' (a type of resin) is known from the late 19th century. Anything that had been 'shellacked' would have a nice rosy tinge. By the 1920s, in the USA, this effect had evidently been enough to motivate a slang use of the word meaning 'drunk'. Rosey, illuminated, and plastered show similar developments - all early 20th-century slang.

At the same time, drunks were also being described using such words as busted, bombed, crashed, and thrashed. So it's not surprising to see these words sharing their associations. The connotations of thrashing transferred to shellac, which then developed its later slang sense of 'badly beaten'. I've only every heard this used in US English - but all that is about to change. I predict it will turn up in the House of Commons within the next few days.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers its view on this issue:

shellack v.:

[SE shellac, to coat or varnish with shellac; note Dennis Wilson on American Dialect Society List (Internet, 14/11/02: ‘Here are my guesses; I find any of them plausible, or a combination.

(1) Derivative of German “schlagen” (= “strike”) or equivalent. Cf. supposed etymology of “schlock” (from Yiddish). Cf. “Our team really got clobbered”, “I really got hammered on schnapps last night”, “They really gave him a pounding”.

(2) Onomatopoeic (cf. “smack”, “whack” etc).

(3) [The books seem to favor this one] Shellacking being the last step in finishing something; thus something shellacked is something completed, something which has been “finished off”’]

[1920s+] to beat, to thrash, to punish; thus shellacker n.

  • Your first sentence looks funny. I'm not sure how to fix it. – aparente001 Jan 26 '18 at 3:20
  • How many CVs? Three? Four? Why are you scared? Closed/on hold questions, if it gets that far, can be reopened. – Mari-Lou A Jun 2 '18 at 12:59
4

One possibility is that shellacking involves a color change to a redder or darker hue. That, at any rate, appears to be the sense of the word in this advertisement for the "Princess Theater: Home of the Fotoplayer and Clean Moral Pictures," in the Oak Creek [Colorado] Times (March 17, 1923):

"Fools of Fortune"

Starring Marguerite De La Mott and a large cast

It's a laugh every inch of the way from the ranch out Montana way where Chuck reads of Millionaire De Puyster's search for long lost heir—through feverish preparations for the trip East—including the shellacking of Ike Harper into an Indian who has to grunt confirmation of Chuck's wild tale—Comic adventure on a Pullman, and the surprise that awaits the four old scamps in the effete East

The shellacking here almost certainly refers to painting the character (who, presumably, is white) so that he looks as though he is Native American. The advertisement later appeared in newspapers in Perth, West Australia (November 9, 1923) and in L'Anse, Michigan (September 19, 1924).

The first occurrence of shellacking in the sense of "beating" that an Elephind search returns is from "Greb's Slam-Banging," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Referee (March 3, 1926):

The king of the middleweights [Harry Greb] has lots of fancy punches, some allowable in fair rules, and some not. But regardless of referee, or oral objections from the crowd, he used them one and all in handing Mr. [Ted] Moore a pretty severe shellacking. Holding the other fellow securely around the neck, and hammering away with the free member is one of his pet theories. His punches are liable to start from anywhere and finish likewise. He mixes the fastest kind of two-handed punching in with slapping and mauling.

Less than six weeks later (April 14, 1926), The Referee is back with an account of Mr. Greb taking "a frightful shellacking" at the hands of Tiger Flowers, a black man. And 11 months after that, a Honolulu, Hawaii newspaper, the Nippu Jiji, refers to another prize fight as "the McTigue-Sharkey shellacking bee." According to the color-change theory of shellacking, the term would be most appropriate when used to describe someone who is bruised from head to toe from a beating, as though covered with a darkening shellac.

Another possibility is that shellacking refers to the practice in medical schools of the early 1900s of preserving body parts by coating them with shellac. An example of this sense of the word appears in "Thought It Was Murder: Patrolman Finds Human Arm and Leg in Ash Barrel," in the [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] Evening Ledger (January 30, 1920):

[Patrolman] Curry thought someone was hiding in the barrel, and grabbed the hand. It cam away, and an arm with it. The patrolman delved deeper in the barrel and found a human foot. It was attached to a perfectly good leg.

"Murder." said Curry to himself, and trotted off to the station house with the members under his arm. There examination disclosed that they had been neatly severed, carefully preserved and shellacked thoroughly.

The police believe the leg and arm belonged to a medical student, who didn't want them any longer. He can get them, if he has changed his mind about his property, by applying at the morgue.

So if this practice is the source of the slang expression, a shellacking is a final step in preserving a (metaphorically) dead body.

Yet another early slang use of shellacked seems to refer to drunkenness, as KarlG's answer notes. Elephind fetches examples of this usage from as early as 1922. From "Police Court," in the [Roanaoke, Virginia] World News (March 14, 1922):

E. J. Smith was let down with an assessment of five berries this morning. He was up for drunkenness. "But the next time you come in this court room for being drunk, you can just begin counting sixty days," quoth his honor.

Then came M. C. MacFerguson, and his fine for getting shellacked was five boffos. "I Just want to tell you that thirty days awaits your return," the court warned.

And from "Younger Generation Lingo," in the next day's [Roanaoke, Virginia] World News (March 15, 1922), originally printed in the New York World:

The Mother: "Well, dear, did you have a good time last night?"

The Daughter: "Oh, Mom, it was perfectly blaah—nobody there but a lot of cake-eaters and grease-balls. There was one wally I was goofy about, but while I was necking with him, Harry caught a tomato, so he says, 'let's blouse,' and we left and crashed in at the Plaza. A friend of Harry's we met there was the darbs, and after that we drifted to a couple of the clubs, and both tho boys got beautifully shellacked."

Mother: "Shellacked! I don't understand."

Daughter: "Jammed, both of them, and at one place we were in I got my glimmers on. Tommie Smith. He had a dumb-otis with him that looked like a scandal-walker, but somebody said he was a Pittsburgher out on parole. Anyhow he was making the boffos fairly fly."

The Kalgoorlie [West Australia] Miner (Aprl 27, 1922) very conveniently explains all of the terms in that excerpt in an article titled "The American Language: 'Cake Eaters' and 'Grease Balls'," where we learn that shellacked means exactly what you think it means:

Shellacked.—Jammed or intoxicated.

...

Overdose of Shellac.—Description of a girl who has on too much powder.


Conclusions

So the chronology looks like this:

  • January 30, 1920: A Philadelphia newspaper describes the shellacking of dismembered human body parts and implies that this is standard medical school practice.

  • By March 14, 1922: A New York City newspaper identifies shellacked in the sense of drunk as part of youth slang.

  • By March 17, 1923: A movie ad that appears in various newspapers in the United States and Australia, refers to shellacking as a way to transform a white person "into an Indian."

  • By May 26, 1924, and then June 3, 1924 (according to user159691's sources), and February 27, 1925, and then March 1, 1925 (according to KarlG's sources), and by March 3, 1926 (according to Elephind): A Connecticut newspaper (talking about baseball game), and a Rhode Island newspaper, a Pennsylvania newspaper, a Los Angeles magazine, and a Sydney newspaper (referring in each case to a boxing match) use shellacking in the sense of a severe beating.

From this record, it appears (at least provisionally) that shellacking may have originated in slang as a way of describing getting quite drunk, from which it may have migrated to the ring to describe someone getting "punch drunk." Even so, it isn't out of the question that the youth slang usage might owe its origin to awareness of the use of shellac to preserve dead bodies (or body parts). After all, referring to someone as getting "shellacked" with alcohol is not much different from referring to him or her as getting "embalmed."

  • Are you suggesting that to get shellacked, referring to the medical practice of preserving amputated limbs or corpses, means "to be beaten to death"? Are there references in medical textbooks which confirm that shellac was indeed used, for instance, in medical schools? Have I misunderstood your conclusion? – Mari-Lou A Jan 24 '18 at 8:55
  • No mention whatsoever of its use as a method of embalming corpses or amputated limbs in Wikipedia, as you seem to suggest in your answer So if this practice is the source of the slang expression, a shellacking is a final step in preserving a (metaphorically) dead body. The Wiki page lists 8/9 historical uses of shellac The page list 17 different uses for shellac, not once is coating (e.g.) severed limbs mentioned. – Mari-Lou A Jan 24 '18 at 9:01
  • @Mari-LouA: I didn't mean to suggest any direct connection between shellacking as a preservative for (dead) body parts and being beaten to death—or being beaten at all. Rather, I speculated that the use of shellac as a preservative in cadavers might have been known to people in early 1920s youth culture, who might then have made the connection between shellac and alcohol, which is also a common medical preservative (albeit of a very different kind). However, JEL's discovery of a line of earlier articles describing the drinking of alcohol found in shellac seems to be a more plausible source. – Sven Yargs Jan 24 '18 at 18:39
  • ...As for the use of shellac in embalming, a number of texts from 1902–1920 refer to this practice. For example, from "Injecting and Embalming Blood-Vessels" in The Anatomical Record: Supplement (February 23, 1920): "Previously, in embalming the bodies in this laboratory, it has been customary, twenty-four hours after making the original injection of preserving fluid, ... – Sven Yargs Jan 24 '18 at 18:39
  • ...to inject intra-arterially about a liter of a thin suspension of Prussian blue in shellac, to make the arteries stand out prominently in the dissection." In other words, the shellacking is internal (through the blood vessels), not external (on the model of shellacking a floor). To my mind JEL has offered the best explanation for how shellacking entered youth slang, from which point (it seems to me) the transition to sporting contexts was straightforward. – Sven Yargs Jan 24 '18 at 18:42
4
+400

Getting drunk and getting 'shellacked' in the early decades of the 20th century link directly...almost. So also getting 'shellacked' in the sense of being "completely defeated", "beaten thoroughly", to or near to death, in the later decades of the 19th century, then also in the second decade of the 20th, is...close to...a direct link. For the second sense, that is, getting 'shellacked' in the sense of being defeated or beaten thoroughly, the connection between that slang use of 'shellacked' and the first, the slang use in the sense of getting drunk, seems likely to have cemented the adoption of the sense, supposing it did not sponsor it.

The evidence for the suggested connections is straightforward. For the first case, where getting drunk became known as getting shellacked, the use developed from the circumstances represented in these examples:

  1. From The Baltimore Sun, 24 May 1900 (paywall; emphasis mine):

Another instance of alleged insubordination as reported cites 16 of [the crew of the battleship Texas] as drinking alcohol used for shellacking the decks. This made them so unruly, it is asserted, that the marines found it necessary to level their guns at the sailors before they could induce them to obey.

  1. From the Fitchburg Sentinel (Fitchburg, Massachusetts), 14 May 1903 (paywall; emphasis mine):

If Major Dwinnell [the "keeper" of the jail in Fitchburg] would tell some of his peculiar experiences with prisoners during the past three decades, they would prove mighty interesting. A short time ago a man was set to work shellacking some woodwork. Later the major found the man in a "hazy" condition, and calling him by name, said, "What's the matter with you?" "Nothing, sir." "I know better," replied the major, getting a whiff of his breath, "what have you been drinking?" "Nothing, sir." "Take ---- to solitary confinement until he is willing to tell what he has had and where he got it," was his order, .... The man was conducted to the solitary cell and on reaching it he said, "Wait a moment, Major, I'll tell you what I've had. I drank the alcohol in the shellac. When the turnkey mixed the alcohol I turned some water into the tin. That separated the alcohol from the shellac and I drank it." Major Dwinnell did not believe the statement, but the man offered to demonstrate that it could be done and the experiment was made. It acted just as he said, the alcohol floating on top.

At least among sailors and prisoners in the early decades of the 20th century, getting 'shellacked' had close to a literal meaning; they got drunk not on the shellac itself, but on the alcohol used as the vehicle in applying shellac. This association is explained more technically in the 13 Jan 1921 Wichita Beacon (Wichita, Kansas; paywall):

As alcohol readily evaporates, shellac and varnishes are dissolved in it in order to apply a smooth surface coating to articles.

In part, the further development from prisoner and shipboard slang, and the more general use of the slang 'getting shellacked' to mean "getting drunk" is owed to US national prohibition, otherwise known as the "dry law" or, more technically, the Volstead Act, which took effect in January of 1920. For example, these subtitles over a 17 Jan 1921 New York Herald article reviewing the effects of the "dry law" after a year on the books:

BAD STUFF EVERYWHERE
Shoe Polish, Hair Tonic, Shellac
and Other Dangerous
Concoctions Drunk in
Charleston.

Similarly, this fanciful recipe from a 20 Jan 1921 filler piece in The Manhattan Republic (Manhattan, Kansas; paywall; emphasis mine):

A little information on how to make forty gallons of home brew. Follow directions carefully: Capture a wild bullfrog and pen him up for three days and feed him on hair springs; turn him loose and chase him three miles; then go back on the route taken by the frog and gather the hops; to said hops add ten pounds of tan bark, three pounds of glue, one of soap, and one pint of shellac; boil for thirty-six hours and strain through a sock. This does not conflict with the Volstead Act.

By 15 May 1922, the use of 'shellacked' to mean "drunk" was well-enough established for it to appear as a synonym of 'jammed' in an article in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; paywall; emphasis mine):

Flapper Dictionary header
....
JAMMED — Intoxicated, pickled, shellacked, canned, out like a light, potted, shined, drunk.


The comparatively light-hearted use of 'shellacked' to mean "drunk" also developed from rather more somber circumstances. Those circumstances, in concert with the adoption of the "drunk" slang sense, probably sponsored the parallel development of 'shellacked' in the slang sense "thoroughly beaten, completely defeated". The connection in this case, while a bit more marginal, is nonetheless quite close to direct — and gruesome.

At about the same time that sailors and prisoners were getting 'shellacked' by drinking the shellac's alcohol vehicle, a number of serious accidents from the late 1800's were being revisited in the popular press. Those accidents were caused by the hazards of shellacking the interiors of brewery casks and vats; one of the greatest hazards of shellacking the casks and vats was being overcome and crippled, if not outright killed, by the fumes.

For example, a short article in the 29 Jan 1898 Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Indiana; paywalled) describes one such incident:

Died from Inhaling Noxious Fumes
Michael Gelhaus and Aloise Metter, who were employed in shellacing the large beer vats in the Pabst brewery, died last night from inhaling the fumes of charcoal and shellac.

Another example, from the 18 Jan 1900 Alton Telegraph (Alton, Illinois; paywalled), a few months before the drunken sailor incident aboard the battleship Texas, describes a man allegedly blinded by fumes from the alcohol in the shellac:

John Grant has begun suit...for the loss of his eyesight. While in the employ of the brewing company he was set to work shellacking barrels and kegs. In the shellac was an amount of wood alcohol. From this, it is asserted, fumes arose which acted on the nerves of the eye till he became blind.

Then, in the 7 Feb 1903 Eau Claire Leader (Eau Claire, Wisconsin; paywalled; emphasis mine), a couple of months before the enterprising prisoner in Fitchburg revealed his secret for getting drunk to the jail "keeper", a doctor detailed his opinion that the fumes of the wood alcohol in the shellac killed the two men mentioned in the 1898 Logansport Pharos-Tribune article:

"In 1898 two men met death while shellacking vats at the Pabst brewery. It was thought to be from the carbonic gases from the charcoal fires. However, I contended and have so said to the American Medical society, that the fumes of the wood alcohol killed the men by inhalation...."

The problem is mentioned again in a general article about painters' problems in the 13 Jan 1907 Chicago Tribune (paywalled; emphasis mine):

Chemicals Hurt the Eyes.
Another kind of work that painters try to avoid is where they have to use wood alcohol in closed rooms and shellacking the interior of tanks in breweries. The odor is so strong that it is impossible for them to work more than fifteen minutes without needing fresh air. There are a number of cases where painters have lost their eyesight doing this kind of work....

Four years later, Health Commissioner Francis E. Fronczak submitted a letter to the editor printed in the 13 Mar 1911 issue of The Buffalo Enquirer (Buffalo, New York; paywall; emphasis mine):

Dear Sir — I noticed in The Enquirer your editorial on "Wood Alcohol." Permit me to inform you that some two weeks ago, following the deaths of men who were employed shellacking vats in a brewery, I ordered an investigation by physicians and City Chemist, to determine what effect the fumes of wood alcohol would have along this line. Examinations are being made at present with a view of preparing suitable ordinances to regulate the use of wood alcohol in the various industries.

While the newspaper articles I found do not go into graphic detail, the effects of shellacking brewery vats were well known. Men (and boys) charged with the task came staggering out of the vats after a very few minutes, then collapsed and, in many cases, died, or went on to suffer grievous disabling injury. The unfortunates had received a thorough shellacking.

These circumstances in combination, the alcohol to be had from working with shellac along with the disabling effects of working with shellac in closed spaces, quite possibly sponsored the development of both slang senses of 'shellacked' and 'shellacking' — the sense of 'staggering drunk' and the sense of 'completely defeated'.

Although the earliest use of 'a shellacking' in the sense of "a thorough beating, a complete defeat" that I found was in a syndicated 17 Nov 1923 article in the Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN; paywalled; emphasis mine), the context is such as to suggest the slang sense was extant at least a few years, if not decades, prior. In that article, by Damon Runyon (known for his use of colorful vernacular), about the defeat of the Princeton football team by Yale, Runyon describes the event thus:

However, no one expected Yale to rub it in. No one expected Princeton to get such a "pasting" as the thing would be inelegantly termed in more professional circles, such a "shellacking."


la connexion française

The verb, 'to shellac', in all its senses, derives from the noun 'shellac', which itself translates French laque en écailles, "lac in thin plates". An article in the 23 Jan 1921 issue of The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana; paywalled) described its production in detail:

SHELLAC is the product of a tiny insect which infests certain trees in the East Indies. The term lac is the same as the Hindu numeral lac — a hundred thousand — and indicates the countless myriads of insects which make their appearance each spring on the young, tender shoots of the infested trees. These feed upon the sap in the bark, and after passing it through their bodies exude it in the form of a crimson-colored resin, which in course of time hardens into a tiny semi-transparent cocoon or shell.
  It is these cocoons which, after being melted in boiling water and poured out on a cold surface, constitute the shellac of commerce.

Although the connection is based more on speculation than evidence, I suspect a tradition transplanted to the US from French and London exhibitions in the early 1920s may also have contributed to the adoption of 'shellacked' in the slang sense of 'very drunk'. That tradition is sketchily described in the 21 May 1922 issue of The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio; paywalled):

One of the most gala of these occasions, however, is yet to come — "Varnishing Day," instituted a year or two ago, one of the few known to the United States and which this season will open the spring exhibit of American art.... "Varnishing Day" is by the highest tradition of the spring salons of Paris and London, for the intimate elect...only the life and annual members of the Museum and the exhibitors themselves will be bidden to this private view....

"Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy" is illustrated by George Du Maurier in Punch, 19 June 1877:

Varnishing Day, Punch 19 June 1877, George Du Maurier

As noted at The Victorian Web, "the Academy originally created Varnishing Day to permit artists to bring in freshly painted canvases and then later apply protective varnish."

The day was marked not only by the artists and 'elite' patrons getting thoroughly drunk on wine and other spirits; it was also marked by those in close quarters with their pots of shellac suffering some of the same disorienting effects experienced by the painters in brewery vats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • 1
    Thanks everyone for the great answers, I couldn't have expected such a great payoff for the bounty. It's a testament to this answer that even with so many great responses, there is no contest. – John TerMaat Jan 26 '18 at 23:05
3

A folk etymology that I heard long ago says that it is an indirect reference to coffins. These (allegedly) require varnish - shellac - so a heavily defeated enemy in battle would need to order extra supplies of Shellac to varnish all the coffins they would need. It is almost certainly not true, a story created later to explain the unknown.

According to the BBC the term comes from 1930 gangster lingo, with no particular reason, and parallels the BrE pasted or plastered (though in my Yorkshire dialect that means 'very drunk').

The Online Etymology Dictionary says:

The slang sense of "beat soundly" is 1920s, perhaps from the notion of shellac as a "finish." Shellacked "drunk" is from 1922 (compare plastered).

The possible notion of finish aligns with the finishing coffins story. The reference to shellacked as being drunk is interesting. Maybe both terms are meant to raise an image of an individual staggering around like a drunkard and unable to function properly as a result of a shocking defeat. Of course, that speculation simply moves the question: why use 'shellacked' for a drunk person?

  • But most of the early references do not have the sense of "figuratively killed", but rather "badly beaten" – Hot Licks Mar 29 '16 at 2:30
  • Indeed, but I made it clear that it is a folk etymology like the ones behind 'posh' or 'the full monty' or 'the whole nine yards' or even 'OK'. None of them stand up to a few minutes of scrutiny and, as I said, are almost certainly untrue. I do enjoy them though. Having said that, a heavy defeat in battle does kind of entail a pile of corpses... – Roaring Fish Mar 29 '16 at 2:37
  • 1
    But if you look at the early references they were not about warfare. – Hot Licks Mar 29 '16 at 2:51
  • Have you read the bit that says "it is almost certainly not true"? I even said it twice... – Roaring Fish Mar 29 '16 at 2:54
  • Third time's a charm. – Hot Licks Mar 29 '16 at 2:56
2

Question: How did “shellac” come to mean “complete defeat”?

My answer: The apparent meaning is in the sense of shellac being a common furniture or wood finish (the idiomatic use being figurative in this case), which requires comparatively little effort to apply and is fast-drying.

So: To shellac (verb) someone in the competitive sense, is to finish them off quickly and easily. To get the job done in an efficient manner that provides almost instant gratification and a pleasurable sense of satisfaction. In a way that rewards the ego and boosts the subject's self-esteem.

And adding insult to injury is the subtle insinuation that the loser may be objectified by comparing them with inanimate wood or furniture needing maintenance or repair.

~Easy to use – Shellac is user-friendly and virtually goof-proof. It can be applied with a brush, pad, sprayer, or wiping cloth.

~Super-fast dry time – Shellac dries to the touch in MINUTES and, in most cases, can be sanded or recoated in a little over half an hour.

The Story of Shellac (from a circa 1913 merchandising brochure)

Now, with regard to the use of shellac as an adjective, "shellacked", you said:

I suspect that Mr. Trump’s phrase in question “(Mrs. Clinton) got schlonged” is a malapropism of “got shellacked,”

I would have to agree, since both terms have similar connotations. So, to have been shellacked means to have been finished off rather briskly or brusquely.

  • While I'm not sure there is quite proof here, I believe this one is on the best track with "finished" and I'd add finished off in a sort of thorough way with multiple coats. I think the "multiple coat" would apply well to the getting drunk .. especially had or if there were proof that "finished" was a term for drunk (of course we also have "plastered" .. another top coat layer). _ also, I do not believe the schlonged goes with shellacked.. more a matter of "whomped side the head" . The idea that floors are shellacked is another walking all over them emphasis – Tom22 Jan 24 '18 at 1:53

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