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shameless pleading

Amok, Amuck.

Land of the Free, Home of the Murderous Frenzy.

Dear Word Detective: This morning, I told my wife that the maneuvers of several of my fellow drivers was a case of stupidity run amok. Then I thought to myself, “What in the world is ‘amok’ and why can you only ‘run amok’?” Can you shed any light on this odd word? — Fernando.

I know what you mean about driving these days. I remember reading, more than 20 years ago, a complaint by a German visiting the US about American drivers’ “poor lane discipline,” apparently referring to our collective inability to distinguish between driving to Grandma’s house and a car chase in one of the “Bourne” movies. And that was before car dashboards turned into entertainment appliances. I drive as safely as I can, but that seems to inspire fits of road rage among other drivers, so now I mostly stay home.

“Amok,” which today is often spelled “amuck,” comes from the Malay word “amoq,” meaning “a state of murderous frenzy.” In English, the word “amok” dates back to the 16th century and the first contacts between Europeans and the Malay inhabitants. One 1773 account explains the word: “To run a muck in the original sense of the word, is to get intoxicated with opium, and then rush into the street with a drawn weapon, and kill whoever comes in the way, till the party is himself either killed or taken prisoner.” (The “drawn weapon” was usually a nasty big knife called a “kris.”) One might well suspect that such accounts of the phenomenon by Europeans might have been somewhat exaggerated and culturally biased; in any case, the word entered English with the same general meaning of “murderous frenzy.” The forms “amok” and “amuck” are considered equally correct in English today, though “a muck” was apparently preferred by the poets Dryden and Byron. Go figure.

Probably because incidents of doped-up loonies waving whatever the plural of “kris” is were rare in England, a figurative sense of “amok” meaning “heedlessly, headlong, recklessly” appeared in the late 17th century, almost always in the construction “running amuck” (“I … might have run ‘amok’ against society; but I preferred that society should run ‘amok’ against me.” Thoreau, Walden, 1854). For whatever reason, “amok” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Very rarely [used] with any other verb than run.”

Although the idiom “run amok” has its roots in a violent rampage, in today’s usage it usually means little more than “breaking rules” or “wildly exceeding one’s authority” (“Forbes has its own tales of interns run amuck. There was the Forbes 400 intern who took it upon herself to arrange a meeting with the then-fugitive financier Marc Rich … in Geneva, Switzerland.” Forbes 6/30/15). Disgruntled airline passengers seem to “run amuck” fairly frequently in the news, presumably waving sharpened air-sickness bags, but the taming of of “run amuck” into a tepid metaphor is best illustrated by one newsletter I found complaining that apathy among voters has “run amuck.”

By the way, I highly recommend a fascinating article written by etymologist Michael Quinion on his World Wide Words website (http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/malay.htm) on the surprising range of words English has borrowed from the Malay language, including “compound,” “bamboo” and “gingham.”

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