English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin

On the lam

Q: Some time ago I wrote you to recommend an essential book for someone in your trade: How the Irish Invented Slang, by Daniel Cassidy. There you will find, among many hundred entries, his view of the derivation of “lam” from the Irish word leim. Alas, Danny has since died, and his extraordinary achievement has not been properly recognized. I feel sure that if you look through his book you will be inspired to extend at least his scholarly life.

A: You won’t like what we have to say. This book sounds like a lot of fun, but perhaps there’s more fun in it than truth.

Cassidy’s book, which won an American Book Award for nonfiction in 2007, maintains that American slang is teeming with words of Irish origin—“jazz,” “spiel,” “baloney,” “nincompoop,” “babe,” and “bunkum,” to mention only a few.

But many of his claims have been disputed by linguists and lexicographers because they’re based merely on phonetic similarities.

The critics include Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and dictionary editor who specializes in slang, and Mark Liberman, a linguist who has called Cassidy’s book an “exercise in creative etymology.”

Cassidy himself has acknowledged that he based his etymologies on phonetic similarities. A New York Times interviewer wrote in 2007 about the inspiration that led to the book:

 “Mr. Cassidy’s curiosity about the working-class Irish vernacular he grew up with kept growing. Some years back, leafing through a pocket Gaelic dictionary, he began looking for phonetic equivalents of the terms, which English dictionaries described as having ‘unknown origin.’ ”

 The article continues: “He began finding one word after another that seemed to derive from the strain of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known as Irish. The word ‘gimmick’ seemed to come from ‘camag,’ meaning trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick.”

 “Buddy,” as Cassidy told the interviewer, sounded like bodach (Irish for a strong, lusty youth); “geezer” resembled gaosmhar (wise person); “dude” was like duid (foolish-looking fellow), and so on. He thus compiled lists of American slang words that sounded as if they came from Irish, and based his book on them.

But in doing serious etymology, one has to do more than show that words in one language sound or look like those in another. A superficial resemblance might provide a starting point, but it shouldn’t be the conclusion.

A more authoritative approach would be to apply the academic standards that a lexicographer or a comparative linguist would use, supporting one’s case with documented evidence from written records. 

Let’s focus on the phrase you mention—“on the lam.”

Cassidy suggests an etymology of “lam” in a passage about an Irish-American gambler named Benny Binion: “Benny went on the lam (leim, jump), scramming to Vegas with two million dollars in the trunk of his maroon Cadillac.”

So Cassidy is proposing that “lam” in this sense is derived from the Irish leim. But other than that parenthetical note, he offers no evidence for the suggested etymology.

It’s true that leim (pronounced LAY-im) is Irish Gaelic for “jump” or “leap.” It’s similar to nouns with the same meaning in other Celtic languages (llam in Welsh, lam in Breton and Cornish, lheim in Manx Gaelic, leum in Scottish Gaelic), and it shows up in many Irish place names.

But we haven’t found a single other source that connects the Irish leim with the American slang term “lam,” meaning to run away. Not one.

If there were any truth in Cassidy’s assertion, etymologists and lexicographers would have picked up on it by now. 

Slang scholars still describe the origin of the “lam” in “on the lam” as unknown, and they would be only too happy to discover it.

Several theories have been proposed over the years: (1) that “lam” is short for “slam”; (2) that it’s from “lammas,” a mid-19th century British slang word meaning to run off; and (3) that it’s from the verb “lam” (to beat), used like “beat” in the older phrase “beat it.”

The last theory is the most commonly proposed—that the slang “lam” comes from the verb meaning to beat.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “lam” has had this meaning (to “beat soundly” or “thrash”) since Shakespeare’s day. The earliest citations in writing come from the 1590s.

In the late 19th century, the OED says, this verb “lam” acquired a new meaning in American slang—“to run off, to escape, to ‘beat it.’ ”

Oxford’s earliest citation for the slang verb is from Allan Pinkerton’s book Thirty Years a Detective (1886), in a reference to a pickpocket:

“After he has secured the wallet he will … utter the word ‘lam!’ This means to let the man go, and to get out of the way as soon as possible.”

The following year, the OED says, the word started appearing as a noun to mean “escape” or “flight.” Oxford’s earliest example here is from an 1897 issue of Appleton’s Popular Science Monthly: “To do a lam, meaning to run.”

Over the next few decades, according to slang dictionaries, to run or escape was to “lam,” “do a lam,” “make a lam,” “lam it,” “go on the lam,” “take a lam,” “take it on the lam,” and “be on the lam.”

Similarly, the OED says, a fugitive or somebody on the run was called a “lamster” (1904; also spelled “lamaster” and “lammister”).

It’s not hard to see how the “lam” that means to beat it might have descended from the “lam” that means to beat.

Since Old English, as the OED says, to “beat” has been “said of the action of the feet upon the ground in walking or running.”

This use of “beat,” according to Oxford, has given us phrases like “beat the streets,” “beat a path,” “beat a track,” and so on. In the 17th century, to “beat the hoof,” or “beat it on the hoof,” was to go on foot. 

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the phrase “beat it” (to clear out, go in a hurry), was first recorded in 1878, when it appeared in A. F. Mulford’s Fighting Indians in the 7th United States Cavalry:

“The Gatling guns sang rapidly for a few seconds, and how those reds, so boastful at their war dance the night before, did ‘beat it!’ ”

So the slang use of “beat it” was around before “lam” (to beat) acquired its extended slang meaning (to run or beat it).

But we haven’t discussed where the earlier “lam” came from. Etymologists believe it’s derived from the Old Norse lemja (to flog or to cripple by beating). However, an even earlier source has been suggested, one that’s older than writing.

The linguist Calvert Watkins, writing in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, identifies the source of “lam” and “lame” (both verb and adjective) as an Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as lem-, meaning “to break in pieces, broken, soft, with derivatives meaning ‘crippled.’ ”

This Indo-European root developed into prehistoric Proto-Germanic words that have been reconstructed as lamon (weak limbed, lame) and lamjan (to flog, beat, cripple), according to Watkins and to the lexicographer John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Other authorities, including the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, say the Indo-European lem– also has descendants outside the Germanic languages, including an adjective in Old Irish and Middle Irish, lem (“foolish, insipid”).

The modern Irish equivalent, leamh, is similarly defined (“foolish, insipid, importunate”) in An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, by Alexander McBain. 

This is a different word entirely from the Irish leim (jump), which McBain says was leimm in Old Irish.

We mentioned above that leim can be found in many Irish place names.

To mention just a few, there are Limavady (the Irish name is Leim an Mhadaidh, or “leap of the dog”); Lemnaroy (Leim an Eich Ruaidh, “leap of the reddish horse”); and Leixlip (Leim an Bhradain, “leap of the salmon”).

This last one is an interesting case. Leixlip is on the river Liffey, which is rich in salmon. The town’s original name came from Old Norse, lax hlaup (“salmon leap”).

In the 1890s, when Leixlip adopted an Irish name, it chose Leim an Bhradain (“leap of the salmon”), a direct translation of the Old Norse. Of course, the Vikings who settled there in the Dark Ages may have used a Norse translation from Irish. Who knows?

Some etymological questions may never be settled for sure. That doesn’t mean scholarly methods can’t be used to make an educated guess. Still, uneducated guesses are made all the time because people are so eager to know.

Woody Allen once satirized this desperate need to know. In a humorous essay called “Slang Origins,” from his book Without Feathers (1972), he wrote:

“How many of you have ever wondered where certain slang expressions come from? Like ‘She’s the cat’s pajamas,’ or to ‘take it on the lam.’ Neither have I. And yet for those who are interested in this sort of thing I have provided a brief guide to a few of the more interesting origins. …

“ ‘Take it on the lam’ is English in origin. Years ago, in England, ‘lamming’ was a game played with dice and a large tube of ointment. Each player in turn threw dice and then skipped around the room until he hemorrhaged. If a person threw seven or under he would say the word ‘quintz’ and proceed to twirl in a frenzy. If he threw over seven, he was forced to give every player a portion of his feathers and was given a good ‘lamming.’ Three ‘lammings’ and a player was ‘kwirled’ or declared a moral bankrupt. Gradually any game with feathers was called ‘lamming’ and feathers became ‘lams.’ To ‘take it on the lam’ meant to put on feathers and later, to escape, although the transition is unclear.

“Incidentally, if two of the players disagreed on the rules, we might say they ‘got into a beef.’ This term goes back to the Renaissance when a man would court a woman by stroking the side of her head with a slab of meat. If she pulled away, it meant she was spoken for. If, however, she assisted by clamping the meat to her face and pushing it all over her head, it meant she would marry him. The meat was kept by the bride’s parents and worn as a hat on special occasions. If, however, the husband took another lover, the wife could end the marriage by running with the meat to the town square and yelling, ‘With thine own beef, I do reject thee. Aroo! Aroo!’ If a couple ‘took to the beef’ or ‘had a beef’ it meant they were quarreling.”

We think there’s a lesson here—and some lessons come with a laugh. The human mind abhors a vacuum. When the most advanced methods of scholarship can’t (or haven’t yet) come up with definitive answers, then answers will be invented. 

Check out our books about the English language