A word that seems made for the shiny and crackly. It ends in ac, but this is not the ac of Cognac nor the ac of celiac; it’s the ac of lac, which names a lustrous resin. And when that lac lustre is purified in thin sheets, the shell-like sheets are called shell lac. Mix that with solvent and you can apply a coat of shellac, that common collocation. The look of that clear c without the blocking k gives it a lightness and triturability, and that combines with the light shine of the sh and the liquidity of the ll, along with the frangible hardness that shell brings with it. The lac may also make you think of a lake, with its glassy surface and late-day sheen. Yet how different it could have seemed if it had the modern transliteration of its Hindustani source, lakh: that seems positively lacklustre by comparison. And, now, what do you think of when you hear the name Shelly? Does it predispose you to a certain image of the girl in question? Does she have any shininess to her? If you think she might be, as the Brits say, a slapper, then that takes us to the other use of shellac: to beat or punish someone. It does have a bit of a slapping sound to it, but the guess is that it came to that sense – in the 1920s – because something that is shellacked is finished.

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