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Definition: Amok (alternate spelling: amuck) has two different levels of meaning.  The more current meaning is that of someone or something that is causing trouble or is out of control.  However, the older meaning refers to a person who is intent on a killing spree.

Pronunciation: Ah-mok


The word amok originated in the Malaysian culture from the word mengamuck, which means “to make a furious or desperate charge”.  This phenomenon was first observed in Malaysia by Captain Cook, who in 1770 detailed in writing his observations of people who, for no discernible external cause, attacked others.  They would often kill several people before either being stopped or killed.  The cultural belief was that they were overtaken by an evil spirit known as “hantu belian” which forced them to act violently.  Because of their adherence to the spiritual world this was tolerated among the Malay people at the time.  However, this is behavior is hardly endemic to the Malay people alone.  The recent spate of violent shootings with high mortality rates, in both the US and abroad, speak to the fact that humans of all races and cultures can be both unspeakably violent and indescribably kind.

Why this word?

I have used this word many times without ever realizing the dark history behind it.  Now that I know, it seems to make a mockery of every time I ever referred to children or a group of confused people as running amok.  In the light of today’s events in Newtown, Connecticut I strongly considered not finishing this entry.  However, I always err on the side of information in the face of ignorance, and if the knowledge of one more word can help alter a person’s thoughts then I have done my job.

How to use the word amok?

“The dog was running amok in the yard, preventing the mailman from delivering the package.” 


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Written by Kate Fulton

Kate Fulton has a bachelor’s degree in classics and psychology from the University of Massachusetts and is working on a library science degree from Simmons College. She has always been fascinated by words- their usage, spelling, and etymology. Kate may be one of the few people who enjoyed the verbal section of the SAT. Yes, she is a word geek. Currently she bores her husband and young daughter with her love of vocabulary.


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