Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Nov 6 16:39:29 UTC 2010

On Sat, Nov 6, 2010 at 6:56 AM, Michael Quinion wrote:
> My own take on the background to this word in this week's World Wide
> Words:
> points out that the fashionable male bright young things of the early
> 1920s in the US were reported to use a hair lacquer derived from shellac
> (or, to be careful about it, were said to have "shellacked hair"). A
> subscriber points out that, as this was the period of Prohibition, the
> lacquer would have been one of the few preparations lawfully containing
> alcohol. Might this be the origin of the slang term for being drunk?

I initially discounted this theory, but now I'm finding more and more
references to shellac being used in Prohibition-era alcoholic
concoctions. This article (from Early American Newspapers) even refers
to "the shellac drunk":

"Extraction of Alcohol from Shellac is the Method of some Boozers"
_Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser_, July 14, 1922, p. 5, col. 1
Recently a man staggered into a downtown office highly inebriated, so
much so, in fact, that it became urgent that the be taken home. All
attempts to identify him by papers in his clothes failed, the only
paper on his person being a scrap of hotel stationery bearing this
inscription: "One 3 gallon can, one brown jug, and a quart of
Those who were in the office at the time thought that the recipe must
have been a joke, but it appears that it is not so, according to men
who have had experience with the liquor hounds since Brother Volstead
took a hand in the affairs of the American drinker.
It is said that the habitual drunkard, when he cannot get whiskey,
must have alcohol of some kind. To obtain this they have been known to
purchase pure shellac in large quantities, and give it the blotter
treatment. This consists of dipping the blotter in the shellac,
withdrawing it and squeezing the blotter into another receptacle. Thie
blotter will absorb the alcohol. From observation of the case
mentioned above, the shellac drunk is anything but a pleasant


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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