The Grammarphobia Blog

Running amok

Q: I just wanted to call your attention to an interesting article in the NY Times that says the phrase “running amok” originated in the Malay language. Have you ever written about this usage?

A: No, we haven’t written about “running amok,” at least not until now. It does indeed come from Malay, a language spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and some other Southeast Asian nations.

In A Dictionary of the Malayan Language (1812), the English linguist and orientalist William Marsden defines āmuk, his transliteration of a Malay adjective, as “engaging furiously in battle; attacking with desperate resolution; rushing, in a state of frenzy, to the commission of indiscriminate murder; running a-muck.”

In “The Malayan Words in English,” a paper presented to the American Oriental Society in April 1896, C. P. G. Scott notes similar words in various versions of Malay: “Lampong amug, Javanese hamuk, Sundanese amuk, Dayak amok.” (In addition to his interest in Malay, Scott was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Columbia College in New York City.)

Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese writer living in India, apparently introduced the usage to the West.

In a travel book written around 1516, he says Javanese who go on a rampage “are called amuco.” (From A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar in the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, Henry E. J. Stanley’s 1866 translation of Barbosa’s work.)

In the 17th century, the word “amok” came to be used both literally and figuratively in English as an adverb, almost always to modify the verb “run,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Literally, the OED says, “to run amok” means “to run viciously, mad, frenzied for blood.”

The earliest citation is from The Rehearsal Transpros’d, a 1672 prose political satire by the English poet Andrew Marvell: “Like a raging Indian … he runs a mucke (as they cal it there) stabbing every man he meets.”

Figuratively, according to Oxford, the expression means to act “wild or wildly, headlong or heedlessly.”

The dictionary’s first figurative citation is from A Speech Without-Doors (1689), a collection of essays criticizing restraints on the press, by the English pamphleteer Edmund Hickeringill: “Running a Muck at all Mankind.”

In the latest OED example for “run amok,” the expression is used literally:

“ ‘Here,’ an acquaintance said to me, ‘you either reach for the stars or you crack up and run amok with a chainsaw.’ ” (From Black & White, a 1980 book by Shiva Naipaul about the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana. Shiva Naipaul was the younger brother of the novelist V. S. Naipaul.)

In the Times article that got your attention, Geoffrey Robinson, a professor of Southeast Asian history and politics at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the Malay term mengamok roughly means making a furious, desperate charge.

Robinson says the usage referred to someone who endured an unbearable indignity and lashed out by attacking everyone in sight until he was eventually killed.

He notes that there was a mystique about the amucos, not unlike the notoriety of mass killers today. The practice faded away during British and Dutch rule as the colonial authorities lessened the mystique by committing amucos to institutions.

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