“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.

4 responses to “lambaste

  1. The 5 April 2014 edition of “World Wide Words” mentioned the idiom “on the lam.”

    It is not related to “Old Norse lemja, literally to lame but usually meaning to give a beating, and the Danish and Norwegian lamme, to paralyse. When lam came into English in the late 1500s it retained the Old Norse sense of beating soundly or thrashing.” It is also not “a joke, a play on beat it from the same period [1880s] for leaving in haste.”

    It is a transliteration of the Hebrew word Ne3eLaM = to vanish, disappear, be hidden … which was borrowed into Yiddish as Ne3eLaM gevern = disappear, vanish. It follows this pattern
    L1 > transliteration > L2 [ + translations > L3, … Ln ]
    where L1 = Hebrew > Yiddish which was transliterated into L2 = English “on the lam.”

    You can see a description of 4 patterns of idiom formation via transliteration at

    Best regards,

    PS – The same explanation in 2006 elicited some poetic ridicule:

    Izzy took it on the lam
    As fast as he could go,
    But everywhere that izzy went,
    They said, ‘You’re much too slow.
    ‘So lame a lam we’ve never seen:
    The poor thing has no tibi-
    A. Never mind its snow-white fleas:
    It’s good for naught but kibbee.’
    Brian [Scott]

    Poetry by Scott?
    Francis Key he’s not.
    But I’m sure both Mary and Snow White will forgive him.

    All truth goes thru 3 stages: …
    widely attributed to Schopenhauer, but he probably never wrote it.

    • Interesting. I got my information from the OED. I guess Quinion has different sources. I’ll go have a look.

      • Oh, wait, I see. Didn’t read carefully enough. You’re not saying that Quinion disagrees; he agrees (I just read You’re saying that the OED and Quinion are wrong. You’re saying so on the basis of a resemblance of sound, with no trail of attestation or other real evidence presented. Because you have noticed a coincidence of sound that happens to feed into your general practice of tracing as many things as possible to Hebrew, you are confident that you are more right than the etymological researchers of the OED and other dictionaries (I did look in a couple of other places).

        Have you seen the movie My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding? In it, the father has a similar practice of relating every word to Greek. Now, there are many words in English that do relate to Greek. But he determines on the spot that Japanese kimono comes from Greek χειμώνας ‘winter’ because the sound is similar and you have to wrap yourself in warm clothing in the winter.

        One of the great truisms among linguists and lexicographers is this: “Etymology by sound is not sound etymology.” You need a trail of citations. Sound can be suggestive, it can lead to discovery, but it can also be coincidence. If your noting of the sound coincidence with Hebrew and Yiddish leads you to find, through research, a documented connection between Yiddish speakers and Pinkerton’s American pickpockets – especially if it extends to other aspects of their argot – that’s splendid. Let me know if you find one. Without such evidence, you can’t simply flatly gainsay what the researched sources say. You can say you suspect it may be so. But resemblance of sound is the most circumstantial of evidence and is not probative at all.

      • On the contrary. For me, semantics is MUCH more important than sound in determining etymologies. The problem with Quinion and the OED in this case is the fact that “on the lam” has nothing to do with “beating”. It means “to be in hiding, to vanish, to have disappeared” so that one will not be found. That is the precise meaning of Hebrew Ne3eLaM. And that’s why it is far more likely to be the source than the “documented” connections to “beatings”.

        It is also well-documented that “muscle” is from Latin musculus (a small mouse), “cabal” is from Hebrew Kabbalah (esoteric knowledge), and “sabotage” is from French sabot (wooden shoe). All of those derivations are equally wrong for the same reason.

        Muscle is related to words like mass and massage. If you lift weights, you will develop muscles. If you have a lot of muscle, you can lift/pull a lot of weight. Consider Hebrew MiSHKaL. The erroneous connection to a small mouse was probably influenced by Greek “pontiiki” which today is a homonym meaning both muscle and mouse. But its mouse-meaning was shortened from “mus Ponticus”, mouse from the Pontus region of Anatolia. And that region was the biceps on a male anthropomorphic map of the area.

        “Cabal” is likely from Hebrew het-bet-lamed, one of whose meanings is “to plot, to scheme”. It has nothing to do with Kabbalah.(received tradition).

        The original meaning of “sabotage” was to lay down one’s tools and go on strike. That is, to treat a work day as if it were the Sabbath. Over time, the meaning shifted to more violent forms of protest and destruction.

        Of course, nearly all “accepted” derivations are correct. But sometimes you need to take the “documentation” with a grain of salt and common sense.

        Israel A Cohen
        Petah Tikva

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