Why Do Criminals Go “On The Lam”?

iStock
iStock

“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.

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

What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

iStock
iStock

What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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

Can You Really Suck the Poison Out of a Snakebite?

iStock
iStock

Should you find yourself in a snake-infested area and unlucky enough to get bitten, what’s the best course of action? You might have been taught the old cowboy trick of applying a tourniquet and using a blade to cut the bite wound in order to suck out the poison. It certainly looks dramatic, but does it really work? According to the World Health Organization, approximately 5.4 million people are bitten by snakes each year worldwide, about 81,000 to 138,000 of which are fatal. That’s a lot of deaths that could have been prevented if the remedy were really that simple.

Unfortunately the "cut and suck" method was discredited a few decades ago, when research proved it to be counterproductive. Venom spreads through the victim’s system so quickly, there’s no hope of sucking out a sufficient volume to make any difference. Cutting and sucking the wound only serves to increase the risk of infection and can cause further tissue damage. A tourniquet is also dangerous, as it cuts off the blood flow and leaves the venom concentrated in one area of the body. In worst-case scenarios, it could cost someone a limb.

Nowadays, it's recommended not to touch the wound and seek immediate medical assistance, while trying to remain calm (easier said than done). The Mayo Clinic suggests that the victim remove any tight clothing in the event they start to swell, and to avoid any caffeine or alcohol, which can increase your heart rate, and don't take any drugs or pain relievers. It's also smart to remember what the snake looks like so you can describe it once you receive the proper medical attention.

Venomous species tend to have cat-like elliptical pupils, while non-venomous snakes have round pupils. Another clue is the shape of the bite wound. Venomous snakes generally leave two deep puncture wounds, whereas non-venomous varieties tend to leave a horseshoe-shaped ring of shallow puncture marks. To be on the safe side, do a little research before you go out into the wilderness to see if there are any snake species you should be particularly cautious of in the area.

It’s also worth noting that up to 25 percent of bites from venomous snakes are actually "dry" bites, meaning they contain no venom at all. This is because snakes can control how much venom they release with each bite, so if you look too big to eat, they may well decide not to waste their precious load on you and save it for their next meal instead.

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios