Mayhem and Maiming

By Maeve Maddox

A series of insurance ads personifies insurable disaster as a man who causes various kinds of property damage. The ads always end with the character saying, “be protected from mayhem like me,” spreading the idea that mayhem means, “damage.”

Mayhem shares its origin with the verb maim, which originally meant “to wound or cause bodily hurt or disfigurement.” In current usage, maim means “to mutilate” or “to cripple.”

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As a term in criminal law, mayhem retains the meaning of inflicting physical injury on a person.

Mayhem is a crime in which tremendous violence is done onto the victim.  […] to prove the defendant guilty of mayhem, the prosecution needs to prove that the defendant had malicious intent to maim or disfigure, cuts or maims an ear, nose, lip or cuts off or disable limb of another person. (site of a Boston attorney)

In ordinary speech, mayhem is used to refer to any kind of violent behavior or disorder.

A surfers’ event in Huntington Beach, Calif., ended in mayhem late Sunday, as riot police were called to the streets to disperse violent crowds and break up numerous fights.

Akm Antivirus 2010 Pro is a virus that is causing mass mayhem around the internet by infecting thousands of PCs.

Current mayhem in the financial sector opens up an opportunity for Nigeria to rid itself of the political and economic cancer it has endured for decades.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Yanukovych must decide “between protecting the people that he serves — all of the people — … versus violence and mayhem.”

The word maim always denotes a crippling injury. Apart from legal use, mayhem may refer either to physical injury or to violent behavior that does not necessarily lead to injury.

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6 Responses to “Mayhem and Maiming”

  • Dale A. Wood

    In certain legal jurisdictions on North America (e.g. states and provinces), there is the crime of “Assault with the intent to maim”, and this is a more serious crime than “Assault and Battery”. (The word “mayhem” can also be used.) The length of the prison term of the convict can be a lot longer.

    This might be true in other English-speaking countries besides the United States and Canada – e.g. the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.

    To be more specific, to attack someone with the intent of cutting off his hand, gouging out his eye, fracturing his skull, or breaking his leg is a lot more serious that punching or clubbing him with the intent of causing bruising and pain.

    In some other jurisdictions, the same kind of serious crime as described above can be called “Aggravated battery” or “Assault and mayhem”. They are different names for the same thing.

    An even more serious crime is “Assault with the intent to kill”.

    When it comes to negotiating a guilty plea from a crimial, the District Attorney could threaten to charge the criminal with Assault with the intent to kill, but then negotiate down to Assault with the intent to maim — something that would still put the criminal in prison for years.
    D.A.W.

  • Roberta B.

    last line: “…….Apart from legal use, mayhem may refer either to physical injury or to violent behavior that does not necessarily lead to injury.” However, it almost always involves the destruction of property like it did in Huntington Beach. Perhaps, this is a conventional legal use, but most certainly is one of the intended messages of the insurance ad on TV which, by the way, I find one of the funnier ones currently airing!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hi, Robeta,
    “Violent behavior that does not necessarily lead to injury” also refers to vandalism, arson, and sabotage, all of which are crimes that involve the destruction of or damage to property.
    So, violent crimes against property were already included by Maeve.
    D.A.W.

  • AnWulf

    Mayhem doesn’t needfully mean violent. It can mean chaos.

    From The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition
    n. Law The offense of willfully maiming or crippling a person.
    n. Infliction of violent injury on a person or thing; wanton destruction: children committing mayhem in the flower beds.
    n. A state of violent disorder or riotous confusion; havoc.

  • venqax

    @AnWulf: But I think the issue (may be a problem or not, depending on other things) is whether that last definition is really legitimate. It is used that way, no argument. Just because something is included in a self-admittedly descriptive and populist dictionary doesn’t answer that question. If the usage is old, then it has more validity. I don’t know in this case.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Venqax that the definition “A state of violent disorder or riotous confusion; havoc.” is very questionable.
    In fact, in many words, the definitions from #4 on down are all questionable. That is why the writers of the dictionary placed them so far down the list.
    Such definitions are so often questionable because they are slang, “trendy”, illogical, obsolescent, or dead ducks. Thus, it is often best not to pay any attention to them.
    (Note that I did not say “always”. Consider words such as “set”.)
    D.A.W.
    P.S. “Feeling like a dead duck!” – Jethro Tull.

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