English Idiom - Severe Treatment

Now here is a tinny word, as the Monty Python team would say. It sounds wrong somehow. To say "I'll spifflicate you" sounds somehow so unthreatening. Quite rightly, really, as it's one of those jocular words the British are so fond of.

Originally spelled spiflicate, the basic meaning is one of hurt or harm, even to the point of death, and was originally coined some time in the 18th century. Possibly a conflation word, from stifle, suffocate, spill and castigate, it quickly developed from meaning "confound, silence or dumbfound" through a reference to rough treatment, and thence came to mean the bringing of death or destruction.

Many writers have used it, in the lesser sense, as Ernest Seton in Two Little Savages, "I won't tell ye a second time - hand me that stick, or I'll spifflicate ye", and Robert Louis Stevenson in The Ebb Tide, "I on'y ast you to stand by and spifflicate the n*gg*rs"

Certainly, by 1840, Lieutenant T.W.E. Holdsworth could use the word in the strongest sense, whilst describing the outcome of one battle. In his Campaign of the Indus of 1840, he wrote that

Of the enemy, about 500 were killed, and more than 1500 made prisoners; and of the remainder, who made their escape over the walls, the greater part were cut down by the Dragoons, or spifflicated by the Lancers.

Tickled to Death

The next generation of use softened the meaning and the threat somewhat, and by about 1900 it could be used in a wholly comic way to threaten punishment of unknown nature and extent, especially of children. Although the meaning was generally some sort of spanking, in our family, it had the meaning of a severe tickling, and to be threatened with spifflication meant one was in for a breathless, giggling few minutes.

Of course, the colonials took the word with them. The Americans have used the word to indicate a state of advanced drunkenness, as this quotation from the 1904 Washington Post suggests quite strongly.

They forced his teeth open, and, while a couple of them sat on his chest, they poured about a quart of corn liquor into his system. He was so spifflicated before they let him up that they had to lift him bodily and plant him in a seat.

The Canadians, bless 'em, also took to it - one community website folk living in Strathmore, Alberta is to be found at http://www.spifflicated.com/, and very odd it is, too.

The Debutante says My grandfather, G-d rest his soul, always used the word splifflicate. It was always in jest, always in terms of: 'Don't you dare do that, or I shall spifflicate you!' Of course, he always wanted us to do whatever it was he was supposedly forbidding. Nobody else uses that word. It was just him. I'd forgotten about it until just now. Thank you.

Thanks to grundoon for the inspiration

Spiflicate, verb:

1. To confound, to silence, to dumbfound.

2. To treat or handle roughly or severely.

3. To overcome or dispose of by violence; to beat.

This is one of those words. It never dies, but never quite gets up enough momentum to make it into mainstream English. It's not one of those living-dead words (like grimgribber, caconym, and floccinaucinihilipilification) that are kept alive by the rare person who lives on rare words. People really do use spiflicate. It lurks around the fringes, appearing just often enough to get into dictionaries, but not often enough to earn a permanent spot on out tongues.

"Whence the term spifflicated?"
-- Gentleman's Magazine, December 1749

Sometime in the mid-1700s spiflicate appeared, apparently out of thin air. It was London street cant, although we have no way of knowing if it originated in London. The quote given above is the first written appearance of the word, and all it tells us is that a literate Englishman heard the word and did not know what it meant. We can assume that at at this time spiflicated already meant confounded, roughly treated, or beaten.

"He uses Nature's Own Remedy. He gets spiflicated."
-- O. Henry, 1906

A hundred and fifty years later, across the Atlantic Americans started using spiflicated, for no particular reason. But they added a twist; spiflicated meant 'to be intoxicated'. O Henry was the first to use the term in writing, and apparently used it in his personal life as well. It only appeared in one of his stories, Strictly Business, 1918, which was probably not read widely enough to explain the spread of the term. This meaning surely comes from the earlier British use of spiflicate to mean 'to confound'. It is important to note that while 'spiflicated' meant drunk, 'spiflicate' kept its original meaning, and did not mean 'to drink'.

spiflicate /'spiflikeit/; Cách viet khác : (spifflicate)
-- English-Vietnamese Dictionary at http://vdict.com/spiflicate,1.html, 2007

And then, people kept using it. While the sense of 'drunken' fell out of use, it is still used in the original sense. Today spiflicate seems primarily to be a word that people hear their grandparents using. In Australia, Scotland, America, and England, reports pop up; usually "I remember my grandmother using this word when we were kids!" Apparently this has become one of those odd words that grandparents use jokingly with kids -- "If I catch you I'll spiflicate you!"

Spiflicate remains a perfectly cromulent word, albeit an arcane one. It appears in the oddest places, such as the Vietnamese dictionary quoted above. It even appears on Urbandictionary.com, a sign of at least marginal trendiness.

Noded for The Debutante

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