On the Lam – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking to describe someone on the run from the police? You could say they are “on the lam” to describe their attempt to evade capture. This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.


The expression “on the lam” means that you’re on the run from the law. It refers to an escaped convict or someone with a warrant for their arrest by bounty hunters or the police. “Lam” had the original meaning of “to strike.” It comes from the root word in Olde English, meaning “lame” or to beat someone until they cannot move.

However, language experts are unsure when the term ended up changing into running from the law. There is no official explanation for why “lam” is a reference to being on the run.

You could be running from the police or any authority figure if you’re on the lam. A teenager could be on the lam from their parents after doing something that infuriates them. An angler without a license could be “on the lam” from the coast guard for poaching.”

Example Usage

“Hey baby, I’m on the lam. The boys got nicked after the robbery, and now the cops are looking for me. This is my last call to you for a while; I need to lay low.”

“Where’s Robbie? I heard he might be on the loam, and the law is after him? He’s on parole, so that means back to jail for him.”

“Are we on the lam again, Edward? What did I tell you about hanging around with them, boys? I knew you would end up in trouble.”

“So, you’re on the lam again, are you by? Well, this time, don’t expect us to come and bail you out when you get caught.”

“Being on the lam from the law is no joke. They’ll find you fast if you leave your phone on and keep paying for things with your credit card.”

“Let’s get on the lam, boys, the cops are about to show up in a second, and we need to get out of here now, or we’re all pinched.”


The expression “on the lam” originates from the 16th century. The initial meaning of the word “lam” was to “beat soundly.” By the end of the 1500s, the word was a part of the thieves’ vernacular. Some experts believe Shakespeare introduced “lam” into everyday colloquial language.

One of the authors from around Shakespeare’s time, George Ade, wrote: “Fables in Slang,” with the word “lam” appearing for the first time in print as a slang word.

The first record of the word in writing comes from The New York Herald Tribune in 1938. It published an article reporting the following.

“One of the oldest police officers in New York said that he had heard ‘on the lam’ thirty years ago.”

Phrases Similar to On the Lam

  • On the run.
  • Ducking the police.

Phrases Opposite to On the Lam

  • Surrender.
  • Give up.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • On the lam.

Ways People May Say On the Lam Incorrectly

This saying is British, and using it outside the UK might confuse others. Some folks in Australia may understand the meaning of the saying. However, unless you live in England or speak to someone from England, they are likely not to understand the phrase’s meaning.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase On the Lam

You can use the phrase” on the lam” in social situations where you’re speaking to your friends or family. It’s a way of saying that you’re on the run from the police and that the consequences are severe if they catch you.

You’ll only use this phrase when you’re on the run from the police, so it suits conversation with the criminal class of society. However, it’s speech found in low-class people and slang referring to minor heists. As a result, it’s common speech used by petty criminals.

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