12 June 2008

"On the Lam" -- a neat idiom

A colleague, for whom English isn't the native tongue, asked me recently about American-English idioms for life as a fugitive.

The one that came to mind was "on the lam." It's an expression I first heard in high school, when I had a supporting role (one of the more-or-less anonymous baseball players) in a production of Those Damn Yankees.

Here's the plot: a middle-aged baseball fan who wants to help the Washington Senators makes a Faustian pact: He'll sell his soul for a great new outfielder for the Senators.

The devil, superbly named "Mr. Applegate," shows up and agrees. His way of effectuating the deal is to make Joe himself that new outfielder, giving him the body of a young ballplayer and making him the new star for the Senators for a season.

But Joe has heard stories like this, and he insists on an escape clause -- he can opt out of the contract on September 24, at midnight.

Of course as September 24 approaches, Applegate devises a plan to keep Joe -- now a sensation as the baseball season comes to an end -- from invoking that clause in time. Two plans, really. One involves the seductress Lola. The other: a scandal. Applegate persuades baseball's authorities that Joe is really "Shifty McCoy," a Mexican ballplayer who took bribes.

The Joe-might-be-McCoy scandal proves enough of a distraction that the 24th passes, and the escape clause has lapsed. Joe is apparently trapped in the contract for eternity. But ... Applegate has other fish to fry. He wants Joe to throw the final game of the season to the Yankees, losing them the pennant, crushing the hearts of Senator's fans, causing suicides etc.

He says that Joe Hardy the suspect ballplayer will suddenly disappear. The headlines will say Shifty McCoy "took it on the lam."

All ends happily. Joe refuses to go on the lam and shows up at the ballpark. Applegate magically turns him back into his pre-contract middle-aged self to be sure he won't be able to do the Senators any good. This also annuls the contract. Despite the creakiness of his restored non-youthful physique, Joe makes the crucial catch. The Senators beat 'those damn Yankees,' the fans are happy, and Joe has his soul back.

Anyway, that's where I first encountered the expression "on the lam." You can see it in a headline of today's Wall Street Journal, in a very different context.

1 comment:

Henry said...

I felt sure that you were going to tell us the origin of the expression -- why "on the 'lam'"?; what is is a lam? The OED has three definitions of "lam" as a noun: (1) "a kind of fishing net," (2) "[a device for] weaving," (3) "escape, flight." The third is obviously the one we want, and does not seem to derive from the first or second. The first use of "lam" in the third sense that the OED found was not until 1897; the 1897 entry reads: "1897 Appleton's Pop. Sci. Monthly Apr. 832 To do a lam, meaning to run."

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.