Irish Language Blog

Cén Ghaeilge Atá ar “To Take a Shellacking”? Posted by on Nov 4, 2010 in Uncategorized

It’s fascinating to me when 1930s slang shows up in today’s political headlines, as happened recently with President Obama’s now famous use of the phrase “to take a shellacking.”  Even more fascinating to me, as you may have guessed, is to ponder how this might be expressed in Irish.

It’s a two-part investigation.  First, we’ll briefly examine the basic words, “to take” and “shellac.”  Which probably won’t get us very close to the Irish equivalent, since the phrase “to take a shellacking” is so idiomatic. Then we’ll look at some Irish equivalents for “taking a strong beating,” even though they, presumably, will have nothing to do with shellac. 

Why?  First, it’s useful enough in its own way.  To discuss the verb “to take” could involve about 20 blogs, minimally, since there are at least dozens (maybe scores) of phrasal uses, involving prepositions and adverbs ranging from “to take after” to “to take up.”  Our take on the topic in today’s blog will be the most basic. But there’s always room for another “mionsraith,” especially if I hear back from you that that would be of interest.  A second reason is that understanding the origin of shellac (as varnish, etc.) reminds us all of how one of our planet’s most lowly feithidí can contribute to a) the history of recorded sound, b) the value and beauty of furniture and c) the swallowability of pills.  And finally, there may be times when it’s useful to refer to someone taking an actual beating, drubbing, thrashing, or trouncing, whether it’s in sports, in politics, or for all its “unappeal,” physically. 

First, let’s take a look at “to take.”  Here are the two most basic uses, as I see it:

Tóg an ciseán sin.  Take (as in “lift” or “lift up”) that basket.

An nglacann tú le cártaí creidmheasa?  Do you take (accept) credit cards? (from glac, take, accept, handle)

I’m giving “take” short shrift here, I know, but that’s what I said I was going to do.  More on “take” later, if there’s interest.

Next, for “shellac,” I’ll simply say that the Irish word, seileaic, like the English, is based on the French “laque en écailles,” which itself comes from the Sanskrit lākshā via the Hindi lākh, a resin secreted by the feithid leaice (lac insect).  That’s the Irish for the “lac insect,” not the Sanskrit, in case there was any ambiguity!  And why is shellac so important, aside from giving us an idiom to dissect as a blog topic?  Shellac was used in making the 78 rpm records of yesteryear, is used in furniture polish (“French polish”) and in the finishing of guitars, and, since it’s edible, can be used as a coating for pills.  What more could an fheithid leaice ask for in terms of how it contributes to society?

By the way, I’m not unaware of some other aspects of the word “shellacking,” but I don’t think they belong i mblag a thacaíonn le teaghlaigh.  Suffice it to say, that whatever the slang as such may mean, there’s also a theory out there that “shellacking” in the sense of a defeat is indirectly based on either “sail éille” or “Síol Éalaigh,” which leads us to a well known Irish souvenir item and St. Patrick’s Day card icon.  So if that obscures the issue, well, it’s meant to.        

Anyway, back to our phrases for “to take a shellacking,” here are some possibilities for expressing the same basic idea (“He took a beating”) in Irish:

Greadadh é.  He was trounced (as in “Greadadh sa troid é,” he was trounced in the fight).

Rinneadh greadlach air, very literally, a trouncing was made on him.

Of course, one can also give a shellacking.  Some Irish equivalent would be:

Thug sé greadadh maith buailte do Sheán, lit. he gave a good lashing of a beating to Seán.  Or more simply, Ghread sé Seán.

Thug sé broicneáil do Sheán.  He gave Seán a drubbing.

Liúr sé Seán.  He beat Seán, with the implication that it was by means of a “liúr” (long pole), but, of course, the pole could be metaphorical.  This could be clarified by saying, “Thug sé liúr de bhata do Sheán,” lit. he gave a blow of a stick to Seán, i.e. he walloped him with a stick. 

Leadair sé Seán.  He thrashed Seán (this could also mean “hewed” or “hacked,” but hopefully only if the object is a forest or tree or some other inanimate object.  Fargo didn’t hear that, I guess!).  Presumably “Fuair Seán leadradh” could also mean “Seán got a leathering,” as in lines like Pat Tierney’s reference to “the possible leathering I would get on my return,” from his autobiography, The Moon on my Back.  But for some reason, actually translating “leadradh” as a “leathering” doesn’t seem to be the norm. 

Thug sé léasadh maith do Sheán.  He welted Seán well. 

Rúisc sé Seán.  He trounced Seán.  This one also could mean “to peel,” as in the bark off a tree, or “to shell,” as in beans, etc.  Again, creepy shades of Fargo!

Are you a glutton for punishment?  In other words, do you want some more?  Fáilte

Chuir sé greadfach i Seán, lit. “he put as stinging pain in Seán,” which could be loosely translated as “He warmed Seán’s hide.”  Or “tanned,” IIRC.    

D’fhág sé riastaí ar Sheán. He welted Seán, lit. he left welts on Seán. 

Bhuail sé dual na droinne ar Sheán.  This one, I think, needs a pre-explanation before the explanation.  “Dual droinne” means “a tuft of wool used a mark on the back of a sheep,” sort of specifically the humped part of a sheep’s back.  Not sure what’s going on with Seán’s possible hirsutism or kyphosis here, but taking it metaphorically, the sentence basically means “he hit Seán’s back.”  Presumably by specifying the important wool-tuft on the curve of the back, it means the blow was especially effective.  In areas where sheep might graze in common pasturage, the identifying mark on the animal’s back would be especially important to confirm ownership.

A little more bland, unless you’re on the receiving end, would be to simply say “Bhuail sé é” (He hit him) or “Bualadh mé” (I was hit).  But that doesn’t necessarily convey the thoroughness of the situation. 

These days, we’ve mostly shifted more into the realm of verbal reprimands, as opposed to physical, and Irish is right there with us, offering idioms galore.  Some relevant phrases are “greadadh teanga” or “scalladh teanga,” both of which mean a “tongue-lashing,” or “íde béil” (verbal abuse), based on “íde,” ill usage.”    

And if we want to avoid the physical implications altogether, we could just say “Buadh ar Sheán” or “Briseadh ar Sheán” (Seán was defeated). 

As expected, none of these have anything to do with “seileaic” or “seileaiceáil,” and none are based on any of the basic words for “to take” (tógáil, glacadh).  Ach tá súil agam gur chuir tú suim ann (I hope that you took, lit. “put,” some interest in it).

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  1. Charles Laster:

    Obama didn’t get shellaked–Clinton got shellacked in ’94. Obama’s position’s rather like that of Ned Beatty in ‘Deliverance’. Dire. Buggered. Direly bugggered? Buggered direly?
    How do you say that in gaelic?

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