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On the lam

Posted by ESC on April 08, 2002

ON THE LAM -- "According to Mencken's 'American Language' and the 'Thesaurus of American Slang' by Berry and Van den Bark, 'lam, lammister' and 'on the lam' -- all referring to hasty departure -- were common in thieves' slang before the start of this century. Mencken quotes a newspaper report on the origin of 'lam' which actually traces it indirectly back to Shakespeare's time -- 'Its origin should be obvious to anyone who runs over several colloquial phrases for leavetaking, such as 'beat it' and 'hit the trail'.The allusion in 'lam' is to 'beat,' and 'beat it' is Old English, meaning 'to leave.' During the period of George Ade's 'Fables in Slang' , cabaret society delight in talking slang, and 'lam' was current. Like many other terms, it went under in the flood of new usages of those days, but was preserved in criminal slang. A quarter of a century later it reappeared.' The Sage of Baltimore goes on to quote a story from the 'New York Herald Tribune' in 1938 which reported that 'one of the oldest police officers in New York said that he had heard 'on the lam' thirty years ago." From the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1977, 1988).