run amuck

One of the few Malaysian words to have entered the English language. It originally meant to enter into a murderous rage, and go running around killing people indiscriminately. These days it just means to act wild or crazy. It is almost always used in the phrase 'to run amok'.

The word was first picked up by Portuguese explorers, who wrote it as amouco or amuco. The phenomenon of running amok was interesting enough that it soon made it into English stories of far-away lands, although the proper spelling was very much a matter of opinion.

Here are the earliest known appearances of Amok in the English language:

In 1663 Cogan wrote in Pinto's Travels {of the far east}: "All those which were able to bear arms should make themselves Amoucos , that is to say, men resolved either to dye, or vanquish."

In 1672, Marvell wrote : "Like a raging Indian... he runs a mucke (as they cal it there) stabbing every man he meets."

In 1772, Captain James Cook explained: "Jealousy of the women is the usual reason of these poor creatures {Malayians} running amock."

The word "amok" is an Indonesian word meaning "a murderous or violently uncontrollable frenzy".

The term dates back to the 1600s when it was observed among Indonesian natives. A person affected by an insane fit of rage would take the nearest weapon at hand, often a kris knife. He would then run into the streets and attack everyone in sight. Because these berzerkers would always fight to the death, many people would die before the killer could be subdued.

Some scholars believe this was a form of ritual suicide as it was often associated with serious personal problems.

While "amok" is typically described as an Indonesian word, it is actually a word of Malay origin. The traditional Malay language has been the dominant lingua franca in the region that these days contains the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. As a result the modern languages spoken in these countries (Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malayu) are heavily based on this old language. Thus the word "amok" is present in both of them.

Personally I suspect that the word is so commonly associated with Indonesia because in this country the dominant island (politically and economically) is Java (that's where the capital Jakarta is). Java just happens to be the most densely populated island in the world, so they have more then their fair share of people running amok there.

Running Amok

The term running amok was originally used in the 19th century to describe the strange behavior that sometimes affected Indonesian natives. Far from the whimsical connotation the term has today, running amok originally involved a man, overcome with rage, grabbing the first weapon he could, and rushing through the streets, killing everyone he could. As many as twenty people could die in this situation, before the madman was finally killed - a man amok would never let himself be taken alive, always fighting to the death.

It is unclear what caused these insane fits of rage, but it was common for the killer to be someone who had just experienced a great personal loss or was otherwise pushed to the point of desperation. One theory is that running amok was a form of suicide, like the Japanese seppuku, only in this case the goal was to take as many people as possible with you.

Unfortunately, it seems that running amok has continued in spirit, if not in name and seems to be happening with increased frequency in recent years.

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