Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2003 / 18 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition
'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
Where did the expression ``take it on the lam'' originate?
C.L., South Orange, N.J.
``Take it on the lam,'' meaning ``to run away,'' originated as criminal and underworld slang before the turn of the 20th century. This passage, written in 1904, gives some of its original flavor: ``He plugged the main guy for keeps and I took it on a lam for mine.'' Though the expression is now used by ordinary folks as well as criminals, it still retains connotations of fleeing, escaping or going into hiding, often from the law. This 1954 quotation from Irene Kuhn is typical of modern usage: ``I won easily and I went down to the office to collect my dough. That so-and-so of a promoter had taken it on the lam.''
The word ``lam'' was a verb meaning ``to beat soundly'' (``they lammed him good'') when it first entered the English language in 1596, and it is still used in that sense today. The word is of Scandinavian origin, akin to Old English ``lama,'' meaning ``lame.'' In American slang of the late 19th century, the verb developed the sense ``to run off,'' an extension of the literal meaning comparable to the use of ``beat'' in ``beat it.'' The phrase ``take it on the lam'' is derived from this verb.
In English class my teacher has been using the word ``decorum.'' Every time I ask him to explain it to me he tells me to look it up. When I do, I still do not understand the meaning. Could you please explain the meaning of the word and also where it came from?
R.J., Madison, Conn.
Most of us have had the frustrating experience of being told by a well-intentioned teacher to ``look it up'' when we encountered a difficult word. It sounds as though you've fared better than many: You've at least figured out the word's spelling, so you were able to find it in the dictionary.
Very generally, ``decorum'' is just a fancy way of saying ``good manners.'' If your teacher is asking your class to ``maintain decorum,'' he is requesting that you resist the temptation to, for example, run up and down the halls singing. He would prefer that you sit politely at your desks, paying attention to your lessons instead of talking to your friends and passing notes. In other words, he wants you to behave yourselves.
``Decorum'' comes from the Latin word ``decorus,'' an adjective formed from the noun ``decor,'' which in Latin means ``beauty, grace.'' Latin ``decorus'' also spawned the similar English adjective ``decorous,'' meaning ``marked by politeness and good taste.'' We first have evidence of ``decorum'' being used in print in the 16th century, when it referred specifically to a sort of literary and dramatic standard of appropriateness, a guideline for what art and literature should be like. We have long since abandoned the 16th century sense of decorum in our novels and movies, but we do, of course, still retain definite ideas about what polite behavior is.
Can you shed some light on the saying ``you look like the wreck of the Hesperus''? I am aware of the Longfellow poem. Was there really a shipwreck? Was it in 1840? Where?
S.N., Harrisburg, Pa.
There was indeed an actual shipwreck that inspired the Longfellow poem, although it took place in 1837 rather than 1840. In his diary on December 17, 1837, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, ``News of shipwrecks horrible on the coast. Twenty bodies washed ashore near Gloucester, one lashed to a piece of wreck. There is a reef called Norman's Woe where many of these took place; among others the schooner 'Hesperus' ... I must write a ballad on this.''
In a time when reciting poems was a popular form of entertainment, Longfellow's ballad ``The Wreck of the Hesperus'' became famous enough to establish the phrase in the popular vocabulary as an exaggerated way of referring to someone or something in a battered or disheveled state.
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