Q&A: Amuck or amok?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re running amok…

Q: Hi AWC. So, here’s the scenario: I was running about recklessly in a black superhero outfit the other day. And it struck me.

A: What struck you? A steel girder? Actually, we thought you seemed to be slurring today.

Q: Nooo, something physical didn’t strike me. A thought struck me. I realised that I don’t know whether the phrase is to “run amuck” or “run amok”. Can you help?

A: So, let’s start again. You were mucking about the other day…

Q: Are you mocking me?

A: Not at all. Just setting the scene. So let’s begin like every good superhero movie and explore the origin story.

Q: I’m Batman.

A: Excuse me?

Q: It’s my deep husky “I’m Batman” voice. Do you like it?

A: But this is a written column.

Q: Oh. Good point.

A: So, as we were about to say – the origin story here dates back to the 1500s, when European explorers first encountered individuals from Java and Malaysia who were “Amuco” – committing mass assault/murder in a frenzied way. Captain Cook also made mention to this behaviour and used the word a lot in his late-1700s journeys.

Q: Okay…

A: So, the word “amok” or “amuk” came from Javanese – an actual psychopathological condition, no longer confined to Malay people, but as a name for an individual exhibiting such mass violence.

Q: Well this took a dark turn.

A: Haha, yeah.

Q: I’m Batman.

A: Thankfully, by the 20th century, the term had lost its stabby overtones and just settled into more of a “general chaos” vibe.

Q: And the spelling?

A: Well, because the origin of the word had both an ‘o’ and a ‘u’ version, there was a little rivalry between “amuck” and “amok” in the beginning.

Q: Like Batman and the Joker?

A: Sure. Up until the 1940s, “amuck” was the common way to spell it. But since then, it has fallen from favour – with “amok” being the recommended spelling these days.

Q: So neither is wrong?

A: Technically no. You’ll find both listed in Macquarie Dictionary for example. But while there are still some older texts or style guides that might prescribe “amuck”, if you want to fit in with today’s conventions, then we highly recommend using “amok”.

Q: So, we might say that “the class ran amok when the teacher left the room”?

A: Exactly. Or that “looters ran amok during the citywide blackout”.

Q: Sounds like a job for…

A: Go on then.

Q: …the police of course.

A: Oh, that’s funny, because we thought you–

Q: I’m Batman.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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