On the lam
MsMyCall
Does anyone know the origin of the phrase "on the lam"? Thanks in advance for your help.
AdSumADS
"Lam" means "thrash" or "beat soundly," from the Icelandic, "lemje," which meant about the same thing. The imagry is that one beats the path with one's feet while fleeing quickly.
Frank Pierce
"Lam" is also used in American slang. Most of us can remember somebody saying something like "He lammed the daylights out of that kid." I'd assume that AdSumAds would agree on this. It's interesting how the word transitioned from Icelandic into American English.
AdSumADS
Properly, it stems from a Norwegian/Icelandic language group which, in turn, derives from from a Northern Gemranic branch of the Germanic languages, where the Englishes (Modern from Middle from Old) come from Low German, coming from a Western Germnanic branch of the Germanic languages. Miriam-Webster's describes the etymology as "of Scandinavian origin; akin to Old Norse lemje to thrash; akin to Old English lama lame Date: 1595."

The reference material supports the existence of a slang of "a beating" by "a lamming," but, as a native speaker of American-English (20th/21st century Standard American Media English), I'm only personally acquianted with the "on the lam" use of the term.

Lewis Joplin II
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' (1900), 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).


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