Friday, May 31, 2013

You Can't Always Trust the National Geographic

      It is true, you cannot always trust what you read in magazines, even a magazine like National Geographic. I was sitting at a tire place, getting a nail removed from one of my tires, and reading an old magazine because they featured an article on Greenland. In the article was a tidbit that caught my eye: the expression 'on the lam' comes from the Vikings because it is derived from their verb 'lemja'. Being the word-nerd that I am, I look it up as soon as I get home.
      Whoever authored this is wrong. The Oxford Dictionary states that it is of 20th century coinage and origins are unknown. It follows 'lam' in the dictionary which does mean 'thrash, hit with a stick ' from the ON lemja which means to 'beat so as to lame' but there is an asterisk in front of the colloquialism which makes it seem to follow the 'beating' word. A quick check at the Zoega Old Norse dictionary reveals that lemja means 'beating' and not 'fleeing' or 'running'. A good and knowledgeable proof reader would have caught that. I am offering my services. :-) (for a fee, of course)

Another quick look in the Brewer's Guide to Phrase and Fable for thoroughness adds nothing because the expression is not even listed, leading me to think 'on the lam' might be an Americanism.


Anachronist said...

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The Red Witch said...

Hmmm. I would not pit 'American Language' or 'Thesaurus of American Slang' against the Oxford English Dictionary in a matter of etymology. The OED is always the last word. Unless they can cite an 19th century source that was printed, they are making it up. A third hand report from someone who may have heard that expression thirty years before does not really count. I wonder if the National Geographic writer googled the expression. and went with whatever he/she found on the net cause it sounded good.