You may have heard of the slang phrase “on the lam” before. It’s important to know what this phrase means if you’re planning to use it in your writing. In this article, we’ll explore its meaning and its origin so you can understand it a little better.
What Does “On The Lam” Mean?
“On the lam” means “to escape.” “To lam” is a slang verb used to showcase this. It’s most prevalent in the case of escaping from the police, though it may appear in other situations too. Its origins date back to Old Norse, where the verb originally meant “to beat.”
According to The Cambridge Dictionary, “lam” means “escaping, especially from the police.”
Let’s have a look at how we might be able to use the phrase in a few examples. We’ll include a couple of variations of it as well to give you as goo of an idea as we can.
Remember, “on the lam” is usually related to being on the run from the police. However, it doesn’t have to refer to police chases or operations, and the slang has opened up its meaning in recent years.
- You’ve been living life on the lam for as long as I can remember.
- Take it on the lam and get out of here!
- How is it possible to survive for so long on the lam?
- I’m on the lam, but I don’t actually know what I did wrong!
- Everyone lives life on the lam; some people just don’t realize it.
- We’re all running from something. We’re on the lam, and there’s no escaping it.
- Let’s all go on the lam for a laugh and see who gets caught first!
- Quick! On the lam! I can’t go down for this!
- My partner is on the lam, and I haven’t seen him in eight weeks.
- The robbers were on the lam for about six days before the police caught them.
- They say that my grades are on the lam, and I don’t know how to get them back to a reasonable place.
- You’re on the lam from your parents, are you?
Generally, we’ll use it to talk about running away from the law in some capacity. However, we also included some other examples where the law doesn’t have to be the main factor.
Usually, there is some kind of superior figure in the examples (like parents or bosses). It’s important to know that you’re running from something when you use “on the lam.”
Origin Of “On The Lam”
Let’s go over the origin of the word a little more to explain where it came from and why people use it. Obviously, the meaning for it now has been explained as “escaping.” However, it didn’t start like that.
Mark Twain, 1855
While not the original user of the Scandinavian verb, Twain did a lot to bring it into the mainstream audience view. In 1855, Twain wrote it twice. We saw the sentences “lamming the lady” and “lam like all creation.”
In both cases, Twain uses “lam” to mean “to beat” as a verb. The idea is that “on the lam” is used to try and escape somebody who was trying to beat you (or use the original verb meaning of lam).
Since then, the meaning of “on the lam” has always been loosely linked to mean “escape the beating.” That’s the main reason why we use this slang term today.
Prison Lingo, 1886
There is another instance of the term “lam” being used. This was a few decades after Twain introduced it as a method of escaping someone who might be beating you.
It was used in 1886 as prison slang to mean “an act of running or flight.” Generally, it meant “to escape custody,” which is the closest relation to the slang meaning for the term today that relates back to the police.
There was also something written in a book called Thirty Years A Detective by Allan Pinkerton about pickpocketing operations in 1886.
After a pickpocket secures a wallet from their victim, they will use the word “lam” to tell their partners that the job was successful and everyone should run before they’re caught.
The meaning of the word has stayed the same over the last two centuries. The only major change is that “lam” isn’t typically used on its own anymore. Now, we say “on the lam” as a slang phrase to make sure people know what we’re talking about.
Synonyms For “On The Lam”
So, what can we use if we don’t want to use “on the lam” as a slang term. Of course, it’s not the most formal phrase, so if you want to use something a bit more polite, you might want to use one of these alternatives instead.
- On the run
This is the most obvious candidate for a replacement. It’s well-known by every native speaker and means that someone is running away from something (usually always the authorities or the police).
- In hiding
While “lam” and “run” imply that someone is on the move and escaping, you can also say someone is “in hiding” when you want to say they’re keeping away from the police. Even if they’re on the move often, they can still be “in hiding” until they’re found.
- Laying low
Someone can lay low when they’re trying not to get caught. This is considered a slang term but is much more common than “on the lam.” Everyone knows what “laying low” means.
- Under the radar
Again, someone can be “under the radar” if they want to go into hiding and escape the police. They don’t have to be actively running away, but this synonym is perfect.
“On The Lam” Vs. “On The Lamb”
“On the lam” means that someone is running away from something, usually the police as we’ve mentioned throughout this article. “On the lamb” is a misinterpretation of the phrase and is incorrect.
If you say “on the lamb,” it means that someone is directly on top of a lamb, which is never going to be necessary to write about. Make sure you understand this difference before trying to use the saying yourself.
Martin holds a Master’s degree in Finance and International Business. He has six years of experience in professional communication with clients, executives, and colleagues. Furthermore, he has teaching experience from Aarhus University. Martin has been featured as an expert in communication and teaching on Forbes and Shopify. Read more about Martin here.