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According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, lam means:

"flight," as in on the lam, 1897, from a U.S. slang verb meaning "to run off" (1886), of uncertain origin, perhaps somehow from the first element of lambaste, which was used in British student slang for "beat" since 1590s.

Does anyone know of any other explanations?

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5 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

New to me, but the OED gives it as US slang and from the verb ‘lam’, meaning ‘to run off, to escape’, which, again, is US slang. The origin sems to be in an Old Norse word which is cognate with ‘lame’.

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On the lam, I know, but lam as a verb I do not. –  tchrist Jun 29 '13 at 1:38
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Origin:

Lam is by definition to leave or flee, especially from the law.
The confusion about this phrase is that lam is not a commonly used word. Many people assume the phrase to be on the lamb.

From http://www.english-for-students.com/On-The-Lam.html

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The term came from 1682 when a group of Quakers were going to be arrested on their flight to America so instead of taking their group along a road they had the ship pick them up in the middle of the night to escape from the Red Coats and The Church of England. The ships name was the Lamb. This ship was part of the William Penn's flotilla. The group that was on the Lamb was headed by Cutberth Hayhurst, his wife and kids, his brother and wife and kids, and his sister and husband, along with a few others. These folks were my forefathers. There is plenty of info on the ship called the Lamb, their escape, and the Hayhurst's. Hence the term on The Lamb.

Nick Hayhurst

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Do you have a source for this story? It sounds like folk etymology – do you have a reason to doubt the OED's derivation from Old Norse? –  Bradd Szonye Oct 18 '13 at 1:54
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When i think of the term "On the lamb", i usually associate it with American gangsters during the depression and 1950's. Therefore i'm more inclined to go with Herman Lamm. Herman k. Lamm was a german born bankrobber who lived between 1890 and 1930. He is considered to be the father of modernday bankrobbing.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Lamm

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Lam means "leave a message" I.e. You're on the move and can't be reached!

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