Dear Word Detective: First of all, is it “lambast” or “lambaste”? The question is prompted by the local sports page which used the word to describe how the local college team defeated a visiting team. I tried to find its origin by going to online dictionaries but without success: they just define it. Also, what is it with sportswriters? They either use cliches or try to use relatively little-used words: some of these they understand and others they use seemingly because they sound good. One, for example, used “penultimate” apparently to mean “the ultimate” because, I guess, that’s what it sounded like to him. I imagine he never took Latin. — MMU.
Well, to tackle (yuk yuk) your second question first, I actually find myself feeling a lot of sympathy for sportswriters. A general assignment reporter or columnist encounters and reports on a wide variety of events, furnishing them wide leeway in their quest for the perfect word. Columnists even get away with metaphors. But a sportswriter is essentially watching the same events day after day, year after year, and writing about them with a necessarily limited vocabulary drawn largely from the lingo of bar fights (“thrashed,” “vanquished,” “rolled over,” “overcame,” etc.). There’s not a lot of room for literary or classical allusions (except the chestnut about “a phoenix rising from the ashes”), so it’s hard to blame them when they venture into their personal unknown with a word like “penultimate.” I don’t know why that fellow assumed that the “pen” means “absolutely” or whatever, but it comes from the Latin “paene,” meaning “almost” (making “penultimate” equivalent to “next to last”).
“Lambaste” is a fine old word, meaning literally “to assault violently, to beat severely,” and figuratively “to criticize or scold sharply.” It’s also spelled “lambast,” and although the preferred pronunciation at the moment seems to be “lam-BASTE” (as if you were basting a lamb roast), “lam-BAST” is OK too. “Lambaste” first appeared in English in the mid-17th century in the literal “beat up” sense; the “scold” sense didn’t develop until the late 19th century.
The “baste” in “lambaste” is a bit of a mystery. It is definitely the same as the obsolete English verb “to baste,” meaning “to beat,” which appeared around 1533 and may be related to various Scandinavian root words meaning “to whip or flog.” Opinions vary as to whether this “baste” is related in any way to our common “baste” meaning “to moisten roasting food to prevent burning.”
The “lam” in “lambaste” is actually a bit redundant, in that it is also an old English word meaning “to beat,” from an Old Norse root meaning “to make lame.” Interestingly, this is the same “lam” we use in “on the lam,” meaning to be “on the run” from authorities. In that usage, the original sense was apparently that the escapee’s feet were literally beating the road in haste, making “to lam” equivalent to “to beat it.”