Running Amok or Running Amuck?

By Maeve Maddox

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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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11 Responses to “Running Amok or Running Amuck?”

  • Erik

    The Swedish word for amok/amuck is amok, so that might skew your results a bit.

  • Brad K.

    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.

  • Maeve Maddox

    An interesting, if convoluted argument for changing the meaning of “amuck.” What’s wrong with “mucky” to describe things covered in, well, muck?

  • Yvonne

    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.

  • Tom Jacobs

    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.

  • Christopher O’Brien

    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!

  • Christopher O’Brien

    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!

  • Christopher O’Brien

    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!

  • David

    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”?

  • Maeve

    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.)

  • Neil

    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.”

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