Have you ever had to deal with a classfull of students running amok? Well, it's happened to all of us. Tim Bowen whips up a frenzy with this rather odd Word of the week.
What do bamboo, sarong, orang-utan, paddy (as in paddy field) and amok have in common? They are examples of words that have come, directly or indirectly, into English from Malay. The adverb amok is a particularly odd word, not least because of its strange pronunciation. Stressed on the second syllable, it rhymes with luck and not lock, as the spelling might suggest. Its meaning in its language of origin appears to have been something like ‘rushing about in a frenzy’.
The word is believed to have come to English via Portuguese explorers who used a Portuguese version (amouco) as a noun to describe the dangerous and aggressive (to them) indigenous people they encountered during their explorations of South-East Asia.
Today, amok is used exclusively with the verb run in the expression to run amok, meaning ‘to behave in an uncontrolled and often violent way’. Some examples of its use in the British press are: “A gunman has run amok in a government building in Switzerland …”, “… a group of corporate guests ran amok at an awards party”, and (in a headline from a local newspaper), “Pedestrian hurt as car runs amok”.