Running Amok or Running Amuck?

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We’ve all heard people criticize parents who permit their children to run amok in public places. Or do those badly brought up children run amuck?

The first recorded use of the phrase to run amok in English dates from the 1670s. The word amok is from Malay amuk, “attacking furiously.” The expression as we use it now usually means “to run about in a wild manner,” As a noun, amok can mean “a murderous frenzy.”

Before the phrase came into use, the word was used in its Portugeuse form amouco or amuco to mean “a frenzied Malay.”

The OED points out two uses by Dryden and Byron in which the word was used erroneously (without the prefix a-):

And runs an Indian muck at all he meets. –Dryden
Thy waiters running mucks at every bell. –Byron

A web search shows plenty of examples of both amok and amuck. There’s a blog with the title “Running Amuck,” and a 5K race called the “RunAmuck Mud Run.”

Here are some other examples:

People who permit their children to run amuck in places of business should be locked in a cage with an angry gorilla.

HOAs are a good idea run amok

As a caregiver, plaintiff has allowed the children to run amok in neighborhoods where they lived.

So which is the “correct” spelling?

Writing in the first half of the last century, H. W. Fowler preferred amuck. He classed the spelling amok, along with sati and Khalif for the more familiar spellings suttee and Caliph, as a “didacticism.”

Dictionary devotees whose devotion extends to the etymologies think it bad for the rest of us to be connecting amuck with muck, & come to our rescue with amok.

On the eve of the year 2010, however, the spelling amok seems to have won. A web search gives amuck 694,000 hits; amok garners 4,350,000.

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16 thoughts on “Running Amok or Running Amuck?”

  1. I like to think that amuck has to do with muck, as “in muck”. Muck being a technical term among horse and livestock people, for droppings and stall cleanings. And sometimes mud. So “in muck” or amuck means, to me, “in a mess”. Or covered with muck; made unusable (until cleaned; there would be risk that complete cleaning or restoring would be impossible). Amuck could be as objectionable as if covered in stall sweepings.

    I looked at a pair of Muck brand boots. The label stated “barnyard acid resistant”. This polite shoe-store phrase means “manure tolerant” to those of us that follow farm critters . . through the barn, through the pasture, through the feed lot. It isn’t as bad if you get to lead them, any surprises they leave are always behind you. Unfortunately, driving cows pretty much means . . . following.

    Or amuck could mean the same as amok, frenzied and heedless, and barely thinking rushing about pointlessly. It depends on the context.

  2. Coming to Erik’s aid, in German, a person running amok/amock is an “Amokläufer.” However, this does not refer to somebody running around crazy in a sense to be taken lightly–it refers to someone shooting/killing lots of people such as in the school shootings of recent years, etc.

  3. You may be interested to know that the Dutch, who have ruled over the present Indonesia for many centuries, also have a saying in their language: “amok maken”. In Dutch, the saying is used to describe rebellious or protesting behaviour, rather than the “noisy” action the English expression seems to convey.
    You may notice that the spelling “amok” is being used; perhaps the Dutch transcription of the original malay saying.

  4. I have always thought that the spelling “amuck” was given mass exposure to the public in the Warner Brothers cartoon, one of my very favorites, in which Daffy Duck suffers from the whimsical changes of the malicious artist Bugs Bunny. The cartoon’s name is Duck Amuck…probably the spelling of “amuck”, I always believed, was a puckish respelling of the ‘correct’ “amok” (as in Amok Time) employed to make the eye rhyme (though in reverse, as the words can really rhyme, but don’t look the same!) work. Seems that I was wrong, at least in part, but it does seem likely that many kids had only ever seen this word spelt out in the title of the cartoon, and assumed it was right, thus propagating this odd spelling and giving it the edge in today’s baby boomer writers’ work . . . especially those who don’t read much–
    I love this mailing list and am eager to read it daily! So many thanks for the stimulating discussions!

  5. On the idea of capricious faux eye rhymes achieved by misspelling existing words–it’s not so odd to use these, especially on signs meant for the halfhearted amusement of the public. I ran into a section of a Kelsey Grammer related website devoted to the voice actor that was named “Kelsey’s Korner.” Doubtless other examples can be produced; for me, it must wait till after my coffee!

  6. I forgot to check the box indicating that I want to get notified in case of further comments on this post, so I append this note now; this one need not be posted if you’d be so kind as to help me receive any replies. . . Gracias!

  7. Amok may be a Malaysian word, but doesn’t it seem likely that the Portuguese amuco meant “a frenzied melee,” rather than “a frenzied Malay”?

  8. David,
    Could be. I took my interpretation from the OED:
    amok, a. and adv.


    Also amock, amuck.

    [ad. Malay amoq adj., ‘engaging furiously in battle, attacking with desperate resolution, rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.‥ Applied to any animal in a state of vicious rage’; Marsden Malay Dict. Cf. amok(e v.]

    1. a.1.a adj. or n. A name for a frenzied Malay. (Found first in Pg. form amouco, amuco.)

  9. My favorite example of usage was delivered by Clifton Webb, in the film,
    ‘Laura’ (1944). Webb struts up to Gene Tierney (Laura), after seeing her with Vincent Price’s character at a prestigious social gathering. To mask his jealousy he says: “Laura dear, I cannot stand these morons any longer. If you don’t come with me this instant, I shall run amok.”

  10. Christopher O’Brien
    I think you’re right about how ‘amok’ came to be misspelled as ‘amuck’ these days. Indeed a sign of a lack of reading in the younger generation.
    I landed on this page following my google search for the meaning of ‘run a muck’ used annoyingly for ‘running amok’ in an article I was reading online.
    And Maeve, ‘a frenzied Malay’ should be ‘a frenzied melee’!
    But there’s the allegation that the languages of the world came to be as a result of confusion anyway! 🙂

  11. Hey! It’s 2019 right now. Just wanna say a little bit,
    Amok is a malay word which has the same meaning as explained above. Portuguese used to colonize our country which influenced their words as well.

    Therefore, I rather spell Amok than Amuck because I found it very weird to spell it that way.

  12. Re: in the muck: I think some writers do use the word to mean something milder than going berserk (i.e., amok). Somewhere, anyway, i got the idea that I should use amuck like, “I did intend to finish the project by 4, but then my niece arrived, so that went amuck.”

  13. Ray Woodcock,
    The idiom is “to run” (not “to go”) amuck or amok. Perhaps a more idiomatic expression in this context would be “to go awry.” “…but then my niece arrived, so my plans went awry.”

  14. Background: degrees and jobs in literature and psychotherapy, with an odor of twice training for the Peace Corps (Kenya & Ethiopia) but never going, now retired, writing and publishing poetry —
    I latched onto “amok” (spelling and concept) in a psych course designed to help one develop sensitivity toward clients from other cultures, but I just finished a poem about wading in the Nile, thinking about fish, flooding, mud, and shifting contexts and points of view, which includes these lines:
    Not without moving faster than I like,
    having spent the last fifteen minutes in bed
    mulling about, running amuck, exploring
    how “fertile language” relates to “fertile Nile”.
    Feeling a little sensitive about a lack of faithfulness to “amok,” I nevertheless, have decided to stick with “amuck” given the murkiness and muckiness of the context. I’m saving “amok” for thoughts about what’s going on in Portland, OR and elsewhere these daze. (|;^P>

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