English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

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?

share|improve this question
up vote 4 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’.

share|improve this answer
On the lam, I know, but lam as a verb I do not. – tchrist Jun 29 '13 at 1:38


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

share|improve this answer

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

share|improve this answer
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

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.


share|improve this answer

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

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist May 16 '14 at 14:23

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.