Once more into the malamanteau

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Over at the Economist's Johnson blog, R.L.G. has launched a quixotic bid to rescue malamanteau, which Randall Munroe coined as part of a joke about what R.L.G. calls Wikipedia's "over serious tone when discussing goofy topics." (The rest of Munroe's joke struck a little closer to home: the strip's mouseover title was "The article has twenty-three citations, one of which is an obscure manuscript from the 1490's and the other twenty-two are arguments on LanguageLog.")

After a suitably lengthy and serious debate, malamanteau lost the fight for an actual Wikipedia listing. But on November 4, R.L.G. found an ingenious argument for resuming the battle.

His colleague G.L. (not to be confused with L.R. or R.G.) contributed an interesting post about the history of shellacking ("I'll give you a good varnishing", Johnson blog, 11/4/2010):

SHELLAC, points out the BBC, is a processed form of an insect resin that was once used to polish furniture and make pre-vinyl gramophone records, and "shellacking" originally meant French-polishing. So how did it come to mean a drubbing, hammering, or other synonym for defeat, as used by Barack Obama yesterday to describe his party's mid-term setback?

The BBC quotes Robert Groves of the "Collins Dictionary of the English Language" suggesting that while nobody knows why "shellacking" changed its meaning, it can be compared to other (British) slang words like a "pasting" or a "plastering". But that isn't really much of an explanation. Those words describe physical acts that readily evoke a process of destruction, as do being "hammered", "creamed" or "trashed". That is, they are metaphors, and obvious ones. "A varnishing" or "a polishing" don't really cut the metaphoric mustard. […]

So, whence "shellacking"? 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".

My question is, what's the name for such a word? It's not an eggcorn; those are words that are mistakenly used in place of another word that sounds about the same (eggcorn/acorn). It's not exactly in the same category as Sarah Palin's "refudiate"; that's a new word created by mixing existing ones. (And what's the name for those kinds of words, while we're at it? I'd suggest that an appropriately 21st-century term, albeit already in use in another context, is "mashup".) "Shellacking" is an existing word that—again, this is just a guess—took on a new meaning with no metaphorical or etymological basis but purely because of some dimly understood, possibly aural, association with something else. Can anyone think of similar examples? And does anyone have a name for the phenomenon?

And that last question was R.L.G.'s cue ("Eggcorn, mashup, malamanteau or other?", Johnson blog, 11/4/2010):

G.L.'s post reminded me that "malamanteau" could in fact be quite useful, if we reduced its meaning to simply "an erroneous and and unintentional portmanteau". This would cover "refudiate" and others like it. […] I hereby nominate "malamanteau" as a word meaning "an erroneous and unintentional portmanteau, eg, 'refudiate' (Palin, 2010)". But I will succeed only if norma loquendi and, eventually, Google get around to agreeing with me. […]  It's possible that this is the most meta (read: navel-gazing) post in the history of the internet, but I really think there's a gap for words like "refudiate" that needs filling, and malamanteau is so much fun to say that it deserves a life beyond xkcd. What do you think?

I'm OK with neo-malamanteau, though this still leaves us without a good term for words that shift their meaning due to sound symbolism, mouth feel, and lexical neighborhood effects.  But what I really wonder about is "the most meta post in the history of the internet".

With all respect, I doubt that R.L.G. can claim the title. I once nominated Language Hat's discussion of Aristotle's attack on the Pythagorean metaphysics of blogging ("Aristotle on Blogs", 6/2/2003). But surely scholars achieved six or eight levels of meta-commentary centuries or millennia ago: are there purely internet-internal discussions that go deeper?

[For those who are genuinely curious about the semantic journey of shellacking from bugs to beatings, take a look at David Crystal's post "On shellacking", 11/4/2010, suggested by a comment on G.L.'s Johnson post. David observes that

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'.

One possible problem with this theory is that it's not really clear that the "intoxication" meaning for shellacking developed before the "bad beating" meaning did. The OED's earliest citation for sense 2(b) of shellac(ked), "U.S. slang, intoxicated, ‘plastered’", is from 1922:

1922 Dialect Notes V. 148 Shellacked, stewed, bunned, etc. 1935 J. T. FARRELL Judgment Day I. iv. 85 You know, when I first found out about how you'd get shellacked, I thought it was pretty terrible. 1948 H. L. MENCKEN Amer. Lang. Suppl. II. 644 When a novelty is obvious it seldom lasts very long, e.g., shellacked for drunk.

The earliest citation given for the OED's sense 2. of shellac "slang. To beat, thrash, punish." is from 1930:

1930 C. F. COE Gunman iv. 53 These two bums that Lefty shellacked were members of Red Karfola's gang. 1935 J. HARGAN Gloss. Prison Lang. 7 Shellack, to punish or beat. 1977 Time 8 Aug. 28/2 Pitcher McArdle was shellacked for..six runs in the first inning.

And for shellacking sense 2., "A beating or thrashing, a ‘pasting’; a defeat. slang" the OED's first citation is 1931:

1931 E. H. LAVINE Third Degree x. 121 When this method failed, as it invariably did, he would leave the room and the shellacking continued. 1941 Sun (Baltimore) 18 Sept. 13/1 The main bulk of the Twenty-ninth Division handed the One Hundred and Fifteenth Regimental Combat Team a shellacking on the combat range today.

But a quick search turns up Johnny Dundee, "My Hardest Fight", L.A. Times 3/1/1925, where shellacking is used in a casual turn of phrase that suggests it was by no means a novel word at that time:

This suggests that both figurative senses developed at some point before 1920, in an order and relationship that may not be documented in print. But in the cases where we know the direction, it seems that the the semantic transfer is generally from violence to intoxication rather than in the other direction — consider also wasted, wrecked, clobbered. Are there any examples of words originally meaning "drunk" or "high" that have come to be used to refer to getting beaten up?]


  1. Catherine said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    I've always thought that giving someone a shellacking was more specifically to give a whipping, like "tanning your hide." I'm also pretty sure that my grandfather used to say, "I'll give you a good shining," but I don't think that there's anyone else still alive who could confirm this for me. There's also "shiner" for a black eye, so maybe the metaphor also (or instead) has something to do with the resulting wounds.

  2. GeorgeW said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    I had been wondering about the origin of Obama’s ‘shellacking’ and hoped that it would be addressed on LL. It looks to me that it migrated from (1) the act of applying shellac to (2) the act of getting drunk to (3) the act of beating. The OED earliest attestations of each:

    (1) 1876 Scribner's Monthly Feb. 488/1 It is made of plain white pine, brought to a good surface and shellacked

    (2) 1922 Dialect Notes V. 148 Shellacked, stewed, bunned, etc. (Bunned? What is this?)

    (3) 1930 C. F. COE Gunman iv. 53 These two bums that Lefty shellacked were members of Red Karfola's gang.

    In any event, I am with Robert Groves (quoted above), it is a little difficult to see the metaphorical migration from (1) to (3). Maybe, by analogy with ‘plastered.’

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  4. Alix said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    I've heard "shellacking" used by Canadian sports commentators for years to describe the outcome of a one-sided game, esp in hockey: "Team A shellacked Team B, 8-0." It's always puzzled me, too.

  5. Damien Hall said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    As a Brit living in the USA, which I did from 2003 to 2008. when I came across shellacking for 'drubbing' for the first time and tried to make sense of it, I imagined that it got its sense of 'humiliating defeat' from the following idea. The defeated party was so utterly defeated that all they could do was lie motionless while the victor did what they wanted, even allowing them to daub them with shellac (or, by extension, with anything that would mark them as beaten). Shellac or other varnishes are often used to coat trophies, so that a shellacked opponent would thereafter be put on display by the victor, as a public reminder of the victory.

    That sounds more convoluted in this explanation than the chain of thought is in my mind, but that's what I tried to get out of it.

  6. Thor Lawrence said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 11:16 am

    To confound the issue, remember that shellac is applied as a solution in strong ethanol, so too long French polishing would potentially make one drunk.

    [(myl) And no discussion of the metaphoric journey from polishing to fighting would be complete without a reference the famous "wax on, wax off" scene from Karate Kid.]

  7. Brian said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    I had the vague idea that shellacking referred (somewhat obliquely) to being covered in sweat after your defeat, leaving you with a sheen somewhat reminiscent of clear furniture polish. All I can offer in meager defense of this idea, though, is the observation that "shellacking" normally implies a competitive situation. I wouldn't say (for example) that a mugger gave me a shellacking with a lead pipe when I refused to give him my wallet. A shellacking occurs when you lose a strenuous competition, such as boxing or football, as well as less formal occasions such as a fistfight in the parking lot behind the school playground.

  8. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Shellacking also gets a ventilation on Michael Quinion's World Wide Words this morning.


  9. grackle said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 11:54 am

    Since you mention polish, how about "he polished him off," which also indicates either a beating or the former having beaten the latter. Likewise "finished him off." I would surmise that polished, finished and shellacked as forms of beating derive from the sense of completion they represent in their original meanings: he was finished, shellacked and polished off, i.e. completely done (and done in). As a surmise, it has the virtue of not being much of a stretch.

  10. David Denison said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Has no one answered G.L.'s query about a label for, and other examples of, "an existing word that […] took on a new meaning with no metaphorical or etymological basis but purely because of some dimly understood, possibly aural, association with something else"? Because a lot of stuff that's traditionally filed under folk etymology would seem to fit that description.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    @grackle: Your finished-off proposal makes a lot of sense to me.

  12. Mary Bull said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    I like Grackle's comment. The idea of shellac as one way to finish furniture came to my mind right away as I read the post and its following comments. I've heard the metaphorical use all my life. Didn't give Obama's choice of the word a second thought until I started reading Language Log this morning.

  13. Ray Dillinger said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    I had always thought that "shellacking" as slang referred to that which happens to the insects involved in the creation of the product. They were dumped, mostly alive and in great numbers, into alcohol intended to dissolve their carapaces (which sort of applies toward the meaning of drunkenness) then subjected to physical violence by the blending process. Next the whole was cooked to the proper consistency. In the end, the shellac was poured off the top while the residue (essentially all the rest of the insects involved) got scraped off the bottom of the vessel.

    Therefore, I had considered the derivation of "shellacking" as slang for drunkenness and drawn-out processes resulting in great injury as too obvious to even comment upon. I am surprised to see it discussed here.

    Of course I may be making up a folk etymology here; I don't recall learning it from any authoritative source. I just looked up at some point while learning how shellac was made and said, "Oh, that's what they're talking about when they use the word for these other things," and, satisfied, never questioned it again.

  14. John said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    I too like the "finish" idea, but wonder whether "turn red by beating" might not by it.

  15. Pavel said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    “an existing word that […] took on a new meaning with no metaphorical or etymological basis but purely because of some dimly understood, possibly aural, association with something else”

    How about ‘phonesthetically induced homonymy’?

  16. groki said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    xkcd A malamanteau is a neologism for a portmanteau created by incorrectly combining a malapropism with a neologism.

    wearing my much-too-serious face:

    as an actual definition as opposed to joke, I'd like to see the "incorrectly" dropped. it's one swoop too far on the negation meta-spiral for me. an incorrect combining of a malapropism somehow cancels, or at least undercuts, the wrongness.

    (maybe intentionally, of course: xkcd's humor, while almost always funny, does sometimes lose me on the outskirts of its meta-moebius-hip-tropolis, where I sometimes feel–probably rightly–I'm one of the rubes being made fun of.)

  17. groki said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 2:39 pm


    R.L.G. I hereby nominate "malamanteau" as a word meaning "an erroneous and unintentional portmanteau, eg, 'refudiate' (Palin, 2010)".

    I believe the Palinism was the result of unintentional error (despite her spin to the contrary later), so yeah, "erroneously coined." but if refudiate gains currency as a portmanteau for refute/repudiate (or whatever), it thereby won't be erroneous.

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    My take on the semantic shift of shellacking in NAmE has been that it's due to its resemblance to the German schlagen, in the same way that the meaning of kid has moved from 'young goat' to 'child' (Kind) and that of dumb from 'mute' to 'stupid' (dumm). To me this is plausible in view of the huge number of German-speakers in anglophone North America ca. 1900.

    [(myl) Yes! (Strikes forehead with heel of hand.) In retrospect, obvious. Without restrospect, brilliant.]

  19. Nathan Myers said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    Can shellacking's route from furniture treatment to violence be treated completely without considering the surface darkening that results? The shellackee's skin develops a rich texture.

    I propose that this combination of satisfying consonants, pun on finishing, and pun on surface color deepening are what gives the word its appeal.

  20. empty said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    German schlagen

    I like it. But it says here that "kid" for child is a lot older than ca. 1900.

    In connection with shellacking I groped around for similar words of physical violence, felt that there might be several, but only came up with came up with one: "shillelagh".

  21. blahedo said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    Am I the only one who doesn't have *shellac or *shellacked in this sense, but only shellacking? I mean, I can figure out what they mean but to my ear they're just backformation. (Which is not to say that's their etymological past, just that since I don't have them in my vocabulary normally, I have to deduce the meaning by backformation.)

    I've been thinking about this ever since I saw the BBC article the other day. The -ing form is quite familiar and passed unnoticed when Obama used it, but the others sound very bizarre. Now I can't figure out if it's a regional thing or what.

  22. empty said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    I'm with you, blahedo. You can get or give a good shellacking, but you can't shellack or get/be shellacked.

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    empty and blahedo: try "shellacked" on Google. By far the most hits refer to a political or athletic defeat rather than furniture finish.

  24. cdogzilla said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    Back in the early 90s, we used to say "I got housed" to convey extreme drunkenness (a degree beyond "wicked drunk" or "'faced"). Likewise, "housed" served as a descriptor for the state of the recipient of a punishing hit in football. Reading this article, I expected to see "housed" come but wonder now if it's faded away or was just a regional thing?

  25. onymous said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

    I thought Jim Henley wrote the most meta post in the history of the internet.

  26. Craig said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

    I knew a guy once who drank a whole bottle of shellac. It was a horrible death. But a fine finish.

  27. Chris Brew said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    There either is, has been, or will be a theorem (though possibly one that cannot be proved) stating that there are non-empty sets of mutually infinitely self (non-)referring posts on the internet. So the question of a maximally meta post cannot arise.

    I believe I read it in a comment by Karl Weierstrass on a blog entry by Kurt Gödel.

  28. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 2:07 am

    The first time I ever encountered "shellacking" was actually in Michael Kandel's English translation of Stanisław Lem's Cyberiad; one of the stories, in the course of which Klapaucius beats the tar out of Trurl, was called "A Good Shellacking". It wasn't actually a word I had heard used, and I had to figure out what it meant from context. Now I should probably dig up the Polish edition and find out what the word originally was.

  29. Joyce Melton said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 5:50 am

    Didn't boxing gloves used to be sealed with shellac? I think I read somewhere (on paper) that that was the origin of the term. I can't find that reference on the internet anywhere. Perhaps it's just the red color of the gloves that looks like shellac.

    It appears that the slang started with boxing, then spread to baseball and eventually other sports. Maybe it's just the thoroughness of how shellac is applied; you don't put on just one coat but buildup layers, rather like how a journeyman boxer or pitcher keeps applying the same force to his opponent until they are finally covered over, smothered, finely shellacked.

    Once somebody used the comparison, the sound of the word may have helped it spread but I can't see it simply being pulled out of thin air based solely on the sound.

  30. GeorgeW said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:47 am

    @Joyce Melton:

    Yes, I cannot imagine that the sound alone motivated the metaphor. In fact, I am sceptical about the sound proposal at all. Which sound segment or segments would induce a 'beat the hell out out of' association?

  31. GeorgeW said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    @Coby Lubliner: Perhaps it was borrowed from Yiddish.

    According to http://www.pass.to/glossary/gloz3.htm#lets

    Shlogen – To beat up
    Shlok – A curse; apoplexy

  32. Sawney said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 6:56 am

    It's just possible that 'shellack' reached its current meaning by way of the 19c Scots word 'sherrack' (a noisy squabble or rumpus). It's still in use in Glasgow where one can get or give a 'good sherracking' ('incite a mob against a person by publicly reviling and denouncing him' – Concise Scots Dictionary). As you might guess, this usually precedes the fisticuffs/serious violence.

  33. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    I think your correspondent who mentioned shillelagh is on to something, though that was just an instinctive guess I had when I first heard the BBC exchange. Your own 1925 item appears to be by a working class Irishman, who would be familiar with both "shillelagh" and "shellac." "Shillelaghing" would be problematic, both in pronunciation and in spelling, so opting for the simpler "shellacking," with the emphasis on a syllable that makes it sound like what it is, (a whacking) would be a clear-cut case of folk-etymology, like the English settlers making "muskrat" from the Native American "musquash"–and many other similar cases.

  34. Ray Girvan said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    I didn't know about many of the possible historical relatives, but I can think of a couple of other "-ocking" words involve processes of doing damage: "gralloching" = disembowelling; and "bollocking" = a strong verbal dressing-down.

    I'm not sure if "molloching" = timewasting (Scots), and Stella Gibbon's "mollocking" fit into the picture.

  35. dirk alan said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    when someone praises me excessively. i always say " thanks for the shellac ".

  36. James Wimberley said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    My candidate for the ¨mashup¨ label is the verb careen : the shift from ¨to haul (a ship) on to a beach in order to scrape off the barnacles¨ to a synonym of ¨career (as a vehicle)¨ took place in in a single jump; a mistake that took root. Could shellack be a similar miscorrection from the vulgar onomatopoeic schlock?

    Maybe air-root is a better term for the process. Pre-computer cupertinos in a way.

  37. Alan Walker said,

    November 7, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

    Might the intoxicated meaning be related to prohibition, and the notion that people would drink anything likely to contain some alcohol?

  38. Bob Lieblich said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    Belatedly, I'd like to offer another word that I contend has taken on a new meaning simply because of its sound: "Meld," which once used to mean simply to lay some playing cards on the table in the course of a game (as in rummy games), mixes together the sounds of melt and weld, possibly with hints of mend, merge, blend, etc., and now itself means something like "mix together."

    Although I had the thought independently, I note that some dictionaries, e.g. American Heritage, M-W Collegiate, offer the same etymology, some with more confidence than others.

  39. Pete F said,

    November 8, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    'battered' in contemporary British slang can mean both 'drunk' and 'beaten', though the latter meaning obviously came first. I'd like to think, however, that they take on some resonance with the process of dipping in flour or breadcrumbs and frying.

  40. Catanea said,

    November 9, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    It appears that no one has mentioned the verb that went with the noun "shellac" in my youth – to make some dodgy piece of furniture quickly appear nicer (more saleable?) one would "slap on a coat of shellac". So when I heard Mr Obama's statement; I clearly visualized him being thwacked repeatedly with a wide, shellac-laden paintbrush. Yup.

  41. Foster Boondoggle said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 1:29 am

    What university is Norma Loquendi at?

  42. Andrew said,

    November 15, 2010 @ 8:45 am

    James Wimberley:

    Not really a single leap for 'careen', according to OED. There is a C19 intermediate usage step, to lean or list (of a ship), independent of the cleaning process. From there the implication of tilting out of control, catalyzed by 'career', thence to the modern word.

  43. abby said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 12:57 am

    We ought to just create a bunch of malamanteaus.
    First, list some malapropisms.

    then, find some neologisms.

    Then, combine them in a crappy way. (genosighed? Flustruthiate??) I don't feel like it right now (meaning that I'm just doing awfully)- I'll leave it to the crowdsoaring efforts of the internet.

  44. abby said,

    November 18, 2010 @ 1:01 am

    Once we've created the malamanteaus, we incinernet them all over everyone's blogoseer until okay I give up.
    This is hard, guys.

  45. mike stoddart said,

    April 2, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    This is a term used frequently during my youth 1950 -1965 to describe what would now be called a drubbing, thrashing, hammering etc, particularly, in my case, at rugby.
    I think this meaning originates in boxing and is possibly a reference to the fact that the reddened face of a badly beaten boxer looks like it might have received a coat of the lacquer; the name of which predates its sporting usage.

  46. Eliot Mess said,

    April 3, 2012 @ 8:08 am

    Slang: to polish off as in "finish" in 1837, from notion of applying a coat of polish, being the final step in a piece of work.


    "1829 Sporting Mag. XXIII. 247 Ned having polished off his sturdy opponent in thirty rounds."

    Polished him off…or shellacked him? (when it later became available as an alternative term)

    Interestingly, the end of a boxing bout used to be signalled by "throwing up the sponge" to clean the blood off the face of the conceding boxer.

    Then it became "throwing in the towel"…circa 1920. Some resonance there too with a final wipe-down as a token of abject defeat.

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