Q: Have you read The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester? I’m finding it fascinating, but it doesn’t answer this language question: how do you pronounce the word “lambaste”? My dictionary has two pronunciations.
A: You’re right. The Professor and the Madman, the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, is a wonderful book. As for “lambaste,” I can’t remember using it lately. On the infrequent occasions that I used it in the past, I accented the second syllable and rhymed it with “fast.”
This is fine, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which says standard English allows four pronunciations. Either syllable can be accented, and the second “a” can be either short (as in “fast”) or long (as in “haste”).
M-W even allows a variant spelling: “lambast.” (Kipling, for example, spelled it “lambast” in The Light That Failed, according to the OED.)
However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) takes a narrower view. Only one spelling: “lambaste.” And only one pronunciation: the second syllable gets an accent and a long “a” (lam-BAIST).
In case you’re interested, the OED says the word may be a combination of two 16th-century verbs: “lam” (to beat, literally to “lame” someone), and “baste” (to thrash or cudgel).
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