Daily Archives: December 29, 2014


“Just me,” @IvaCheung mused on Twitter, “or does ‘lambaste’ not sound remotely threatening?” To which she added, “To me it just sounds delicious.”

And how could it not, at least to carnivores? Some lovely lamb-based dish, perhaps basted lamb, lambent in its bestial sapidity, the best braised meat you’ve had in ages? The very sound of the word fills my mouth’s imagination with a taste of rosemary and a hint of Madeira in the shimmering juices. Or perhaps, if we are more shellfish, it is an underpronounced clambake, slurred out by someone who has imbibed a bit much?

Is this word in any way semblant to the beating – physical (the older sense) or verbal – that it refers to? Can you imagine the “lam” as the wind-up, and the “baste” as the blow of the fist? It’s odd, though, to have a “long” vowel as the nucleus for something percussive. “Bust,” sure, and even “best” and “bossed” have a bit of punch, but “baste” is like “boast”: blow-hardy but a bit wide-swinging. And when you add the “lam” it’s more ambling, almost amiable. Sure, “lam” is the end of slam, and has something of a short, hard, firm sound, but not that hard, really; it’s resonant.

So where did we get this appetizing word for an unappetizing experience? It’s actually two words put together. I won’t say it’s a slapdash compound, but it’s a compound like slapdash: two words with very similar meaning glued together, wham-bam (thank you, ma’am).

The first part is lam. Does that make you think of go on the lam, meaning ‘beat it’? Guess what. It’s the same word. Lam first meant ‘beat’ (and is related to lame), but just as beat it means ‘leave’ (as we see in the long form beat a hasty retreat), so does go on the lam; Allan Pinkerton (of the detective agency) gives what is the OED’s first related citation, from 1886: “After he [a pickpocket] has secured the wallet he will … utter the word ‘lam!’ This means to let the man go, and to get out of the way as soon as possible.”

The second part is baste. Does that make you think of basting the lamb? Guess what. Yes, the two may be related. It’s not a sure thing! The baste may be related to beat. But even if it is it may be related to brushing or pouring those delicious savoury meat juices and fat onto the roasting meat… Not because the meat was brutally murdered before its cooking, of course. Just for some reason perhaps involving the laying on of the brush. Look, I don’t know, I can hardly think straight, I’m getting so hungry I’ve just ripped open a bag of all dressed chips. Don’t lay into me about it.


How does this word taste? Is it something succulent, even Lucullan, or is it more reminiscent of an occult octopus (or even Cthulhu)? Is it something from a deep and dark past? Or is it a messenger from the future, shining a light – or a beam of darkness?

It gives us so much to work with. Three syllables and only six letters, but look: in the heart, ulu, a word for a curved knife, shaped like a blade with a cup on either side; flanking that, c and s, one curve and two, related letters, passing through the ulu like an occult transformation; at the start, o, like an eye. This word seems made from Masonic symbolism like that pyramid on the US dollar bill. You know, the one with an all-seeing eye on it. Latin oculus omni.

That’s what oculus is: ‘eye’. If you have glasses, your prescription has lines for OD and OS. That stands for oculus dexter – ‘right eye’ – and oculus sinister – ‘left eye’. Hmm, dexter and sinister. Like the good and bad side of oculus. (Except lately people hear “Dexter” and think “serial killer.” Thanks, TV.)

What you may think of when you hear oculus will depend on the spheres you travel in. (Get it? Spheres? Eyeballs are… never mind, moving on.) If you geek out on virtual reality, you’ll immediately think of Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset for gaming. If you’re in it, everything is awesome. But to outside observers, you look like a complete dork. So it’s all in where you see it from.

The same is probably true for the movie Oculus, which is a horror film made in 2013. Some people seem to have liked it; others found it… ridoculus.

If you’re into wine, particularly fairly good Okanagan wine, Oculus is the name of a line of Bordeaux-style blends from Mission Hill, a very nice looking winery set high above the lake with a full line of reliable wines and a heckuva tour. They named their pricy red blend Oculus after the architectural feature that lets light into their cellars.

Architectural feature. Yes, that’s really where you’ll see oculus. The circular skylight (if there is one) in the middle of a dome is an oculus. Similar round skylights in other parts of roofs are also called oculus (the plural would be oculi, but it’s not common to have more than one).

And then there’s the World Trade Centre. The new transportation hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava, has a feature they call an oculus. It is indeed a skylight. But it’s not exactly a hole in a dome. It’s the whole thing that’s there in place of a dome: a large humped ridge with wings, or spines; some have called it dinosaur bones. It may be seen to resemble a closed – or barely-open – eye with long eyelashes. There are a few other analogies also available. What it does not resemble is a round skylight. Or anything small. (The ulus ending suggests smallness. Compare loculus, ‘little place’, from locus, ‘place’; a loculus is a niche, for instance for bodies in a mortuary or catacombs.)

Well, so be it. It’s a bit of a crisp, arch word, with tastes bright and dark. I find it succulent like coquilles. But what I wonder most is: Is there a locus with an oculus in Ucluelet?