Dear Word Detective: I heard from an old salt that the expression “run amuck” comes from losing control of a boat and running a boat aground on the bank and into the “muck.” It makes some sense. – Nick Burford.
Yes, it does make some sense. But I know what makes even more sense. I suggest that we pass a small law making it illegal for anyone who has ever spent more than a week afloat on a boat to spread etymological hooey upon their return from the bounding main. I would especially like to ban all those “Old Salts” (as they often sign their letters) from berating me when I stray from the mission statement of that shadowy sailors’ cabal known as CANOE, the Committee to Assign a Nautical Origin to Everything. Ahoy, maties, “posh,” “brass monkey” and “the whole nine yards” have nothing to do with ships.
And neither does “amuck” have anything to do with running aground. I should say that, as a sailing aficionado in my youth, I had extensive experience with running aground, and spent many unpleasant moments up to my waist in the dark gray goo known as “muck” around Long Island Sound (from the Old Norse “myki,” meaning “cow dung”). Then again, it was preferable to growing up on a farm, where the verb “to muck” means to clean stables, etc., of livestock dung.
“Muck” has also given us several useful modern idioms. “To muck with” something, meaning to tinker, fiddle or interfere with it, dates to the 1920s, and “to muck about” (or “around”), meaning “to goof off or fool around” is actually a relic of the mid-19th century. The irony of that story about boats running aground in muck is that the original “proper” form of word “amuck” in English was “amok,” still often used along with “amock.” And although we often use “run amuck” today to describe small children, for instance, running wild in daycare, the original meaning of the term was quite grim. “Amok” comes from the Malay word “amoq,” meaning “a state of murderous frenzy.” In English, the word “amok” dates back to the 16th century and the first contacts between the Malay people and European explorers. The Europeans reported that the Malays were “susceptible to bouts of depression and drug use,” which then led them to engage in murderous rampages known as “running amok.” Of course, it’s likely that the Europeans’ accounts of the phenomenon may have been overly melodramatic and culturally biased, but the word entered English with the same general meaning, that of “murderous frenzy.”