It’s an American pastime: The party of the president takes a big hit in the midterm elections and the electorate awaits how the president will describe it the next day. Most colorfully, in 2010 Obama described Democratic losses as a “shellacking,” while in 2006, Bush described his party’s as a “thumpin’.” And unlike Christmas, the word drubbing only comes once every two years, as pundits take to the bandwidth and column width for their analysis.
Whatever the characterization, its a now a tradition as American as apple pie, but two of those words, drubbing and shellacking, have travelled far–etymologically, that is–from grains of sand to the amber waves of grain.
Today, a drubbing is primarily a metaphorical “beating,” but historically it referred to real blows dealt in punishment with a cudgel, especially on the soles of the feet, which is a form of corporal punishment known as the bastinado. I know midterms are referenda on incumbents, but jeez, thank goodness etymology isn’t a literal business. Except for poor old Senator Charles Sumner.
To my ears, drub sounds like Germanic stock, so, as we recently saw in the word candy, it’s a nice surprise that our best evidence points to an Arabic origin. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites the word in Thomas Herbert’s 1634 travel writings, A Relation of Some Yeares Trauaile, Begunne Anno 1626. into Afrique and the Greater Asia.
Behind drub, according to this etymological route, is the Arabic ḑaraba, meaning much the same, “to beat,” especially “to bastinado,” yielding a verbal noun ḑarb, a “beating” or a “blow.” Turkish or North African variations, perhaps including a simple metathesis, may have utlimately yielded the English iteration.
Wiktionary, however, puts forth an alternative etymology. It suggests drub is from a Kentish dialectical form going back to the Old English drepan, “to strike,” from the Proto-Indo-European *dhrebh-, “to crush” or “grind to pieces.”
Shellacking, too, takes us to the Middle East, but it doesn’t just stop there.
Shellac is a compound of shell and lac, entering English as a 1713 translation of the French laque en écailles, “lac in thin plates.” Lac, related to lacquer and a variant, lake, is a dark-red resin secreted and encrusted on trees in India, among other locations, by a female bug, Kerria laccia.The resin was scraped from the tree bark and processed as a dye in the East. Later, it was dissolved in alcohol particularly for use in gramophone records and as a varnish in the West.
It is probably as a varnish that we get the sense of shellacking as a “beating.” Shellac was used as a finish for furniture and other woodcrafts, so to be shellacked was “to be finished” (and in a period of US slang, “wasted” or “plastered”). And so we can see its figurative leap.
Lac probably entered the West from the Persian lak or Arabic lakk, passed down from the Hindi lākh. The Hindi, in turn, is from the Sanskrit lākshā, ultimately meaning “red dye.” It could also name the insect or plant wherefrom the dye was obtained. So greatly do the insects number on the trees, apparently, that their swarm may have yielded a term for “100,000,” as in a Hindi lākh of rupees–a great number of rupees. The connection between this term and lākshā is not certain, however.
The Sanskrit lākshā may have had an earlier form, rākshā, which could point to a Proto-Indo-European *reg, “dye” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots). In Sanskrit, the root also plucked out raga, a kind of melodic basis for improvisation in Indian classical music. Rather synesthestically, the sense of color connected with “dye” was transferred to a notion of color and mood associated with sound.
In Greek, *reg- became associated with rugs or blankets, eventually giving English the rather useful term regolith: that loose layer of rock, soil, and dust covering on the surfaces of bodies. I’m sure the scientists who landed the Philae space probe on Comet 67P were very mindful of the regolith.
Rolling with the Punches
Shellacking is colorful term with a colorful root, but perhaps raga reminds us of the importance of sound here. The real power of shellacking and drubbing does not lie in their origins or histories. It’s in their sound: Drubbing and shellacking sound imitative and suggestive of the hits they deliver, yet they pack a punch without thrashing too hard. They are forceful without being final, giving the drubbed and shellacked a way to acknowledge they lost without losing face, as if getting up from the ground and dusting themselves off.