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"on the lam"

Posted by Bruce Kahl on April 08, 2002

In Reply to: To be "on the lamb" posted by Word Camel on April 08, 2002

: "I'm taking it on the lamb", "He's on the lamb from the law."

: Any idea where this phrase comes from?

Pasted from the Word Detective:

"On the lam" has been popular American slang for "on the run" since at least the latter part of the 19th century. The root of "lam" is the Old Norse word "lamja," meaning "to make lame," and the original meaning of "lam," when it first appeared in English back in the 16th century, was "to beat soundly." The English word "lame" is from the same source, as is "lambaste," a double whammy in that the "baste" part is from a Scandinavian root meaning "thrash or flog."

The change in the meaning of "lam" from "beat" to "run away" probably echoed another slang term for running away -- "beat it." To "beat it" or "lam it" is to rapidly beat the road with one's feet by running, just as sheep do when they smell mint sauce."