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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.


President Obama has brought shellac back into fashion.

Jason Reed/Reuters

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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."

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." 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, .

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.


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