Historic Malay Expression “Run Amok” Perfectly Defines Mass Shootings
From “cut off your nose to spite your face” to “saved by the bell,” everyday we employ words and sayings inherited from the tapestry of cultural influences which have shaped the English language. Digging into the history of these terms can reveal unknown historic connections etched into our lexicon. “Run amok” is a case in point.
These days, when we use “run amok” it means to behave like a maniac or to go berserk. Anything from the stock market, unruly children or mischievous monkeys can run amok. But few people reflect on the ancient origins of what is actually a term used to describe a disturbing syndrome of homicidal frenzy which continues to be relevant in the 21st century.
Surprisingly, “run amok” has been traced to Southeast Asia in the 1500s. Early European explorers observed the phenomenon known as meng-âmuk in Malay, meaning “to make a furious and desperate charge.” The first description of this term was written by Tomé Pires, a Portuguese apothecary and diplomat who wrote about his Malay-Indonesia travels between 1512 and 1515.
Next, Duarte Barbosa—another Portuguese who wrote about Asian cultures he encountered between 1500 and 1516 and sailed with Ferdinando Magellan—wrote about Javanese amuco who “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 ways that they go like mad dogs, killing until they are killed.”
Illustration of an amok-maker from ‘Images from the Dutch Indies’ by F. J. Van Uildriks, 1893. (Java Post)
More famously, Captain James Cook—the British explorer known for charting the Pacific Ocean in the 1700s—wrote about the term amock in his journals when discussing Malay tribesmen. In Cook’s words, “to run amock is… to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage… indiscriminately killing and maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack.”
Within Malaysian and Indonesian beliefs, this amok behavior was credited to an evil tiger spirit known as the hantu belian who was thought to possess unsuspecting individuals and drive them crazy. Researchers attracted to this curiosity linked this behavior to cultural traits of so-called primitive tribes.
Over time, it was classified a psychiatric condition. “A man — it was almost always a man — would feel he had endured an unbearable indignity. After a period of brooding, he lashed out by attacking everyone in sight with knives or other sharp weapons, hacking away until fellow villagers or the authorities finally killed him,” wrote The New York Times. Sound familiar?
Some psychiatrists and experts have even associated centuries-old amok to modern-day mass shootings. Easy access to assault weapons and inadequate mental health funding amplify the ghastliness of these amok syndrome incidents.
Top image: The original meaning of "to run amok" can be traced back to Southeast Asia in the 1500s, where it referred to individuals who were possessed by spirits and engaged in rampage killings. Source: X-Poser / Adobe Stock