By far the most popular fact over on HH this week was the fact that amok—as in, “to run amok”—derives from a Malay word that originally referred to an unexplained murderous rampage undertaken by psychologically damaged Malay men.
The original Malay root here is amoq, which as we pointed out on Twitter essentially means “battle furiously”, or “running in a frenzy”. From there, no one is entirely sure of the word’s origins, with various theories pointing everywhere from the name of a violent cult of Javanese assassins to a Sanskrit word meaning “that cannot be loosed”. But whatever the word’s history, it fell into use in English in the early sixteenth century, first appearing in the form “amuco” in this ominous account, dating from 1516:
There are some of them [Javanese people] who, if they fall ill of any severe illness, vow to God that if they remain in health they will of their own accord seek another more honourable death for his service, and as soon as they get well they take a dagger in their hands and go out into the streets and kill as many persons as they meet, both men, women and children, in such wise that they go like mad dogs, killing until they are killed. These are called amuco.
Duarte Barbosa, A Description of the Coasts of East Africa and Malabar (c. 1516)
According to Barbosa—a Portuguese-Malay interpreter working in southeast Asia in the early sixteenth century—“running amok” was a murderous rampage that more often than not ended in the death of its perpetrator. And later descriptions continued to shed more light on this bizarre, bloody phenomenon.
According to some accounts, running amok was believed locally to be caused by possession by an evil spirit (and because of its supernatural origins, those guilty of amok were often spared punishment). The explorer Captain James Cook witnessed just such an attack first hand while in Indonesia in the early 1770s and blamed the problem on opium addiction, writing that “to run amock is to get drunk with opium” and then “sally forth from the house [and] kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the amock ... in a frenzied attack.” And even later descriptions pointed out that these killing sprees often followed periods of intense, depressive and self-imposed isolation; if they survived, those who ran amock often had no memory of the event afterwards.
Precisely what caused these indiscriminate killing sprees is debatable, and to this day running amok remains a bizarre, culture-bound curiosity. In etymological terms, however, it did not take long for the word to begin to be used more loosely in English: the earliest figurative use of “running amok”, in the sense of “acting heedlessly or wildly”, dates from 1689.