The Origin of Run Amok

Hello,

This week’s phrase is “to run amok”, although you may be more familiar with “run amuck”. In fact there are a few spelling variations on this one. Amok appears to be correct one for English language use.

You will find a few different stories about the origin of the phrase too, including a spurious nautical one about running a ship aground into the muck.

Etymology Online tells me it was a verbal phrase recorded in the early 1500s in “The Book of Duarte Barbosa – An Account of the Countries Bordering on the Indian Ocean and Their Inhabitants” as Amuco “who go out into the streets, and kill as many person as they meet”. They add that the Malay word amuk meant to attack furiously and in Portugese amouco or amuco describes a frenzied Malay.

Either way, it’s clear that somebody running amok is somebody to avoid and something like a Viking berserker.

Viking Chessman from the Isle of Lewis. He is biting his shield, a beserker tradition

Phrases.org and “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald flesh out the story, but be warned it doesn’t become gentler.

In the 1600s, Malays occupied Malabar (on the west coast of India) and in their tradition the king was required to kill himself after 12 years of power, by cutting his own throat in public. With time, and I’m guessing at the request of the monarchy, this was modified to allow a team of warriors (amokers) run at the king and usually be cut down by the bodyguards. If one killed the king then he claimed the crown. Stories of this dramatic power struggle were brought back to Europe by shocked travelers.

The amokers, or amuco, were dedicated warriors who believed failed missions were punished with dishonour and fallen soldiers became favourites of the gods. Captain James Cook, who traveled in the region in the late 1700s, mentioned opium use in connection with this tradition so it’s possible the warriors combined skill, faith, and narcotics before running amok.

I used to accuse my children of running amok when they played rowdy games or scattered toys throughout the house, but having discovered more about the amuco, I have to retract that allegation.

The lovely Andrew Doherty of Tides and Tales blog has been kind enough to read and review “Words The Sea Gave Us” on his blog this week. As a landlubber myself I was relieved to find somebody from a nautical family giving it the stamp of approval. His blog is fascinating to anybody with an interest in Irish maritime history and illustrated with wonderful photos, both old and new. Andrew has already published one book about maritime history and his second, “Waterford Harbour, Tides and Tales” is launching this month with the History Press.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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