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On the lam

Posted by James Briggs on December 05, 2009 at 16:31

In Reply to: On the lam posted by David FG on December 05, 2009 at 13:42:

: : What is the background of the phrase "On the lam"? It is heard in movies and tv shows describing a person running and hiding to avoid capture by the Police.

: It appears to derive from the (to me, at least) more familiar meaning of 'lam', which is to hit or beat (cf 'beat it' meaning 'go away'). It comes from the Scandinavian 'lemja' which means, it seems, appropriately enough, 'to lame' or to hurt.


The Word Detective gives the following:
"'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') could well come from the sound of rapid foot beats on the road when running.