Printable Version
Pronunciation: shê-læk Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, verb

Meaning: 1. A lac purified by heating, filtering, and often bleached white, once used in making gramophone records. (Lac is resinous substance secreted by some insects.) 2. A preparation of lac used as a wood finish and protector.

Notes: This word is often misspelled shellack. That's because, when you add ending to verbs ending on C, we usually attach a K to make them look more English: shellacking, shellacked (note also bivouacked and medevacked). This word may be used as a verb meaning "to coat with shellac" or "to defeat decisively". In other words, to put the finishing touch on a victory.

In Play: Shellac is produced by a species of lac insects: "Shellac and lacquer are examples of resins derived from insects." The application of shellac to the floor of a house was once the finishing touch on the building as it was on other wood products. So, shellac is metaphorically used as a slang substitute for doing something completely: "When Republicans decisively took control of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, President Obama famously admitted that the Democrats had taken a shellacking."

Word History: Today's Good Word was originally a compound noun comprising shell + lac. Shell goes back to PIE (s)kel- "to cut", also the origin of shale, (fish) scale and scalp, Italian scaglia "chip", ancient Greek skallein "to hoe", Latin culter "knife" and scalpere "to scratch, scrape", Irish scoilt, scailt "split", Lithuanian sklempti "to squeeze", Russian skala "cliff, crag" and shchel' "split, crack", and Polish skalić "to scale" (fish). Lac was borrowed, as usual, from Old French, this time lacce, which French inherited from Medieval Latin lacca. Latin borrowed its word from Persian lak, inherited from PIE lak- "red dye". (Now let's thank Lynn Morris, who saw the idiosyncrasies of today's fascinating Good Word and shared them with us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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