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Why Are Gangsters Always 'On the Lam'?

Mexican drug gang leader Joaquin Guzman is moved by soldiers and marines to a waiting helicopter in Mexico City, Jan. 8, 2016.
Mexican drug gang leader Joaquin Guzman is moved by soldiers and marines to a waiting helicopter in Mexico City, Jan. 8, 2016.
Mexican Drug Gang Leader Recaptured
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Drug gang leader Joaquin Guzman was recaptured Friday by Mexican marines after six months on the lam.

Many in America know that “on the lam” means on the run or hiding from police -- especially after escaping from jail or prison.

That perfectly describes what Guzman was doing. Last July, he escaped from a maximum security prison and had been hiding from police, moving from place to place.

“On the lam” is an informal phrase, used almost exclusively in the United States. says the “expression is now used mainly to suggest or imitate the language of old movies about gangsters.”

Movies about gangsters, or criminals, are popular around the world.

But where did such an odd phrase come from? In other words, what are its origins?

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word “lam” means “flight” or “to run off.” It may come from the expression “on the lam,” which appeared in the late 1890s in the United States.

William Safire wrote many columns about language before he died in 2009. In 1998, he wrote about “on the lam” in the New York Times newspaper. He noted that “the origin of the expression is in heated dispute among slang etymologists” -- or people who study words.

Safire notes that the famous American writer Mark Twain used the word “lam” or “lamming” twice in his books, in 1855 and 1865.

When anyone who has been “on the lam” has been recaptured, news writers often say the person will now have to “face the music.” We will tell you about this expression soon.

I’m Jim Tedder.

Christopher Jones-Cruise reported this story and wrote it in VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

We want to hear from you, especially if you are on the lam! Write to us in the Comments Section, or visit our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

on the lam – expression to be running from the police, especially after escaping from prison

exclusively – adv. only

gangster – n. a member of a group of violent criminals

odd – adj. strange or unusual

origin – n. the point or place where something begins or is created; the source or cause of something

slang – n. words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and that are used very informally in speech especially by a particular group of people

traced to – v. to follow (something) back to its cause, beginning, or origin; to find out where something came from