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Why Do Criminals Go “On The Lam”?

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“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.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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

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Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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