"on the lam"
Posted by ESC on April 08, 2002
In Reply to: "On the lam" posted by Bruce Kahl 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."
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).
- With apologies to Dorothy Parker Word Camel 04/08/02