Why Do Criminals Go “On The Lam”?

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“Call me mint jelly, because I’m on the lam!”

The fact that there’s no B at the end of that particular lam suggests that the origin of "being on the lam"—that is, on the run from the law—doesn’t lie down on the farm. So where does this bizarre expression come from?

The phrase on the lam first emerged in the late 19th century as to do a lam, a slang expression defined in an 1897 article in Popular Science as simply “to run.” (Alongside it, we’re told Victorian criminals were already taking kips when they fell asleep, were rubbernecking when listening in on others’ conversations, and would give longwinded spiels instead of speeches). But by the turn of the century, to do a lam had morphed into to go on the lam, which first began to crop up in print in the early 1900s and has remained unchanged ever since.

As a verb in its own right, however, lam dates back as far as the late 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed it in a dictionary compiled in the mid-1590s (alongside a long-lost equivalent form, belam), but back then the word’s meaning was considerably different: in 16th century English, to lam meant “to beat” or “to thrash someone harshly.”

In that sense, lam is probably a distant cousin of lame (and so might have originally implied beating someone to the point of injury) and actually still survives in the word lambaste, which today means "to scold" or "castigate," but back in the 17th century also meant "to beat." Precisely where the word came from before then, however, is a mystery, but it’s possible that lam has Scandinavian ancestors and could be descended from an Old Norse word, lemja, meaning “to beat” or “strike.” But no matter what its earliest origins might be, how did we get from beating someone to running away from the law?

Lam survived in this original sense until the 19th century when, having steadily fallen out of everyday use, it began to crop up in the schoolyard slang of British (and later American) schoolchildren. By the mid-1800s, lamming out or lamming into someone was being widely used in reference to schoolyard fights and scuffles, and it’s perhaps through association with schoolboys running away before they were caught fighting by their teachers (or else, with the hapless victim running away before the first blow was thrown) that lamming finally came to be used to mean “to escape” or “to abscond.”

In this sense, lam first appeared in print on its own in 1886, in Allan Pinkerton’s memoir Thirty Years A Detective. In it, Pinkerton—the Scotland-born founder of Chicago’s renowned Pinkerton National Detective Agency—describes in detail the precise operations of a pickpocketing gang:

"After selecting their victim or 'mark,' who is engaged in drawing a large sum of money from the bank, one of the number will take up his position inside the bank, where he can watch every movement of the man who is to be robbed … Quick as a flash, and yet with an ease of motion that attracts no particular attention, the 'tool' turns sideways, almost facing the man, but upon his right side. The 'tool' usually carries a coat upon his arm for the purpose of covering his hand; with the concealed hand he will work under the man’s coat, and taking the wallet or package by the top, will raise it straight up, until it is entirely clear of the pocket; then drawing it under his own coat, the robbery is complete … If he is rather slow about getting to the wallet or the money and he notices that the front men [two other members of the same gang] are getting somewhat uneasy, he calls out 'stick!' This means that in a few seconds he will be successful, and that they are to stay in their respective positions. After he has secured the wallet he will chirp like a bird, or will utter the word 'lam!' This means to let the man go, and to get out of the way as soon as possible. This word is also used in case the money cannot be taken, and further attempts are useless."

It’s from here that phrases like doing a lam eventually emerged in the later 1880s, and criminals have been going on the lam ever since.

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What Happens During a Jeopardy! Commercial Break?

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
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Jennifer Quail:

Typical Break One: First, if there are "pickups" (re-recordings where Alex misspoke or coughed or stuttered, or Johnny mispronounced someone’s name or hometown) to record, they do those. A stagehand brings water bottles for the contestants. The production team who wrangles contestants comes over and gives their pep talk, makes any corrections, like if someone is consistently buzzing early; and keeps you quiet if there are pickups. Alex gets the cards with the "fun facts" (there are about three, one highlighted, but which one he goes for is ultimately up to Alex alone) and when the crew is ready, they come back from commercial to Alex’s chat with the contestants.

Typical Break Two: If there are any pickups from the second half of the Jeopardy! round they do those, the water gets distributed, the production team reminds the contestants how Double Jeopardy! works and that there’s still lots of money out there to win, and Alex comes over to take a picture with the two challengers (the champion will have had their picture taken during their first match.) Then we come back to Double Jeopardy!.

Typical Third Break: This is the big one. There are pickups, water, etc. and they activate the section of the screen where you write your wager. One of the team members brings you a half-sheet of paper ... and you work out what you want to bet. One of your "wranglers" checks it, as does another production team member, to make sure it’s legible and when you’re sure that’s what you want, you lock it in. At that point you can’t change it. They take away the scratch paper and the part of the board where you write your answer is unlocked. Someone will tell you to write either WHO or WHAT in the upper left corner, so you do know at least whether it’s a person or thing. They make sure the "backup card" (a piece of card stock sitting on your podium) is turned to the correct who or what side, just in case your touchscreen fails. If everything’s ready, then as soon as the crew says, they come back and Final Jeopardy! starts.

There are breaks you don’t [even know about, too]. If there is a question about someone’s final answer, they will actually stop tape while the research team checks. Sometimes if something goes really off, like Alex completely misreads a category during the start of a round, they’ll stop and pick it up immediately. Those [are breaks] you’ll never notice because they’ll be completely edited out.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Is There a Leap Day?

Bychykhin_Olexandr/iStock via Getty Images
Bychykhin_Olexandr/iStock via Getty Images

At some point in elementary school, your science teacher probably explained to you that there are 365 days in a year because that’s how long it takes for Earth to complete one full rotation around the sun. What they might not have specified, however, is that it’s not exactly 365 days—it’s actually closer to 365.2421 days.

So, if we want our calendar year to begin right when Earth begins a new rotation around the sun, we have to account for (roughly) an extra quarter of a day each year, or one day every four years. History.com reports that the Egyptians had already been doing this for a while before Europe finally caught on in 46 B.C.E., when Roman dictator Julius Caesar and astronomer Sosigenes put their heads together to come up with what we now call the Julian calendar, which includes 12 months, 365 days, and an additional “leap day” every four years on February 29.

But rounding 0.2421 up to 0.25 each year created an issue, because it didn’t quite add up to a full day every four years—and that tiny discrepancy meant that after 128 years, the calendar year ended up starting a day before Earth had completed its rotation around the sun. By the 14th century, the calendar year was starting a whopping 10 days before Earth finished its orbit.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII sought to correct the error by suggesting that we simply skip a leap day every so often. His Gregorian calendar, which we still use today, mandates that we omit the leap day during years evenly divisible by 100 but not by 400. For instance, the year 2000 included a leap day because it’s divisible by 100 and 400; the year 2100, on the other hand, will not include a leap day, since it’s evenly divisible by 100, but not by 400.

Gregory XIII’s correction to Caesar’s overcorrection is itself a bit of an under-correction, so we’ll probably need to reevaluate our leap day protocol again in about 10,000 years.

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