“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.