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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." 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.


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