Someone on Crackbook asked: “What’s your favourite word?” One of the replies was spifflicate.
When I was growing up, my Dad would often threaten to spifflicate me or my brother if we didn’t get a move on and, well, do whatever. Or conversely, stop doing whatever it was we were doing. I hadn’t heard it used in any other context, so up to that day I’d thought that it was a nonsense word he’d invented.
If I’d thought about it more I would have decided that this wasn’t very likely, as my Dad wasn’t a consumer of nonsense literature at all. But it turns out that the word comes, not from Lear or Carroll, but from the very kind of Manly Fiction which he enjoyed. After doing a double-take on finding out that spifflicate was a real world, of course, I googled.
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.
Examples from Everything.com and Languagehat:
I won’t tell ye a second time – hand me that stick, or I’ll spifflicate ye” – Ernest Seton
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. – T.W.E. Holdsworth, 1840
So out with your whinger at once, and scrag Jane, while I spiflicate Johnny! – Ingoldsby Legends, 1856
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.
But What’s a whinger? I did some more googling.
n. 1. A kind of hanger or sword used as a knife at meals and as a weapon.
The chief acknowledged that he had corrected her with his whinger.
– Sir W. Scott.
Well, who’d have thought? I always thought it meant someone who was always moaning. And corrected her with his whinger sounds a little, er, extreme.
But I digress. In America, spifflicated came to mean drunk, plastered, pissed as a newt, boiled as an owl.
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. – Washington Post, 1904.
And it took me this long to find all this out. English is a very, very strange language.