Let’s play blotto.

Dear Word Detective: I was watching a documentary to do with the travels of Queen Victoria as young child. At one house they visited, the ceiling of the dining room had a plaster relief of horses and figures upon it. The comment was made that the plaster for this relief was made with alcohol and they wondered if this is where the modern reference for being “plastered” — as in very drunk — came from. Is there any truth in this? — Barb McMeekin.

I seriously doubt it. But I’ve learned that it’s best not to dismiss such theories without investigation, so I actually went looking for anything on the internet that might connect alcohol in plaster to the term “plastered” meaning “very drunk.” I didn’t get very far, because I couldn’t even find anything indicating that alcohol was ever used as an ingredient in plaster. The only references I found were to something called polyvinyl alcohol plaster, which is applied to walls as a form of insulation, but I doubt that it was around in Victoria’s day. But after reading about plaster for an hour or so, I am impressed with the range of things people mix into it, so alcohol in plaster would not be much of a stretch.

“Plaster” itself is an interesting word. It’s derived from the Latin “emplastrum,” which meant both the kind of plaster used in building (water mixed with gypsum or lime and inert filler) and a “medicinal plaster,” a medicinal substance (e.g., ointment) applied to a bandage and stuck to the skin to cover a wound or other injury. The key qualities of “plaster” for our purposes here is that it’s sticky and that it thoroughly covers something.

“Plastered,” in addition to simply meaning “covered with plaster,” is a popular synonym for “very drunk.” According to slang etymologist Paul Dickson, “drunk” bears the distinction of having more synonyms than any other word in English. His collection, called, appropriately, “Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary” (Melville House, 2009), lists more than 3,000 of them, from “accidentally horizontal” to “zui,” which is apparently Chinese for “blotto.” This is, by the way, a fascinating and frequently hilarious book, far more than a mere list, from the same pen that produced the magisterial “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary” and several other lexicographic classics.

“Plaster” as a verb appeared in the 14th century, initially meaning both “to medically treat with a plaster” or “to apply plaster to walls, etc.” The “plaster a wall” sense developed, by the 16th century, the colloquial meaning of “cover a surface with objects, to display widely,” still in use today (“Photos of the outfit were plastered across the front pages of New York newspapers yesterday,” 2005). “Plaster” also developed the figurative sense of “mix or pound into a soft mass,” as if mixing plaster, which led to “plaster” meaning “to strike with heavy blows,” “to defeat utterly,” “to shell or bomb a target extensively” and “to mangle a bird with shot from a shotgun” (The plasterer, whose plastering often arises from jealousy, will plaster — i.e., blow the pheasant into a pulp,” 1883).

“Plastered” in the sense of “very drunk” first appeared in print, as far as we know, around 1902, and there are several theories as to its origin. One ties it to the medicinal kind of plaster, the theory being that a drunk has been “medicated” and is “feeling no pain” (both common synonyms for “drunk” in their own right).

A more intriguing possibility, as reported by Paul Dickson, was inadvertently raised by the head of the Arizona Lath and Plaster Institute in 1956 when he objected to the use of “plastered” to mean “drunk.” “You don’t say a person is ‘shingled,’ ‘painted’ or ‘landscaped,’ then why say he is ‘plastered’?”, asked the Institute’s spokesperson. The New York Times replied that the term has nothing to do with plasterers, and referred to “a bird riddled with shot” (as noted above). My sense is that “plastered” meaning “very drunk” came initially from this “blasted bird” sense, and subsequently incorporated the more general senses of “badly beaten” and, of course, “thoroughly bombed.”

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