Why Do Criminals Go “On The Lam”?

iStock
iStock

“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.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Why Are Common Graves Called Potter’s Fields?

Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
vyasphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For centuries, regions around the world have maintained common graves called potter’s fields, where they bury unidentified victims and impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford their own cemetery plots. The term potter’s field has been around for just as long.

The earliest known reference to a potter’s field is from the Gospel of Matthew, which historians believe was written sometime during the 1st century. In it, a remorseful Judas gives the 30 silver coins he was paid for betraying Jesus back to the high priests, who use it to purchase a “potter’s field” where they can bury foreigners. It’s been speculated that the priests chose land from a potter either because it had already been stripped of clay and couldn’t be used for farming, or because its existing holes and ditches made it a particularly good place for graves. But Matthew doesn’t go into detail, and as the Grammarphobia Blog points out, there’s no evidence to prove that the original potter’s field was ever actually used for its clay resources—it could’ve just been a parcel of land owned by a potter.

Whatever the case, the term eventually caught on as English-language versions of the Bible made their way across the globe. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it from Latin to Middle English, using the phrase “a feeld of a potter,” and William Tyndale’s 1526 Greek-to-English translation of the passage featured “a potters felde,” which was altered slightly to “potters field” in King James’s 1611 edition.

Around the same time, a new definition of potter was gaining popularity that had nothing to do with pottery—in the 16th century, people began using the word as a synonym for tramp or vagrant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first written in a 1525 Robin Hood tale, and William Wordsworth mentioned it in his 1798 poem “The Female Vagrant.” It’s likely that this sense of the word helped reinforce the idea that a potter’s field was intended for the graves of the unknown.

It’s also definitely not the only phrase we’ve borrowed from the Bible. From at your wit’s end to a fly in the ointment, here are 18 everyday expressions with holy origins.

[h/t Grammarphobia Blog]