on the lam

“On the lam” is slang for running away, since roughly the late 1800s.

The root of “lam” is the Old Norse lamja, meaning “to make lame,” and the original meaning of “lam,” when it first appeared in English in the 1500s, was “to beat soundly.” 

“Lame” is from the same source, as is “lambaste,” which today means to scold or castigate, but back in the 1600s, meant to beat. It’s 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.

By the mid-1800s, “lamming out” or “lamming into someone” was often used in reference to schoolyard fights. Perhaps it was through association with schoolboys running away before they were caught fighting by their teachers (or else, with the victim running away before the first blow) that lamming finally came to be used to mean “to escape” or “to abscond.”

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins says that, according to 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 the 1900s. 

Lam first appeared in print on its own in 1886, in Allan Pinkerton’s memoir Thirty Years A Detective. In it, Pinkerton—the Scotland-born founder of Chicago’s renowned Pinkerton National Detective Agency—describes in detail the precise operations of a pickpocketing gang, which used the word “lam” as a warning to leave in a hurry.

And, of course, criminals have been going on the lam ever since.

Cats and dogs do it, too. To them, the sight of a pet carrier usually means a trip to the vet and a lot of uncomfortable prodding and poking. So what do they do? Take it on the lam! Wouldn’t you?

  One thought on “on the lam

  1. January 19, 2022 at 3:53 pm

    I’ve heard the term used with reference to escaped sheep, obviously by people who didn’t know its origin, and were trying to be witty.

    Liked by 1 person

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