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TWTS: Going on the lam? Don't use a lamb

Most people would agree that a lamb would make a terrible escape vehicle. All that bleating would instantly give away even the stealthiest of fugitives.

Fortunately, a spelling discrepancy clarifies that going "on the lam" doesn't mean riding away on a baby sheep. It does make us wonder though, what exactly is a “lam” anyway? 

There are competing theories about the origins of “on the lam.” We looked at one of the more common explanations.

Today, “lam” means “escape” or “flight.” This sense of “lam” appears in the late 19th century and comes from a verb, “to lam.”

In earlier contexts, this verb meant “to beat” or “to hit.” The theory is that this version of “lam” comes from Old Norse, in which it meant “to make lame.” Now the question is, how did this “lam” meaning to hit or strike something become the “lam” that means to escape?

The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it’s theorized this change is similar to how the expression “beat it” came about. Even though “beat” means to hit, if someone tells you to “beat it,” it means they want you to go away. It’s thought that this expression comes from the idea of beating or stomping a path.

When you physically run away from something, your feet strike the ground. That’s how some think the meaning of “lam” transitioned from “beat” to “flee.”


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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