History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Why do we say ‘run amok’?

'Running amok' is generally used to describe wild or unruly – but ultimately harmless – behaviour. But the origin of this phrase has more sinister origins, as this answer shows…

Children running down a street
Published: August 1, 2015 at 12:00 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Coming home to a house wrecked by your dog or watching toddlers go crazy at a soft play centre are perhaps two instances where we’d reach for ‘running amok. You would expect their wild, unruly behaviour that could damage your sofa or lead to some bruises, but nothing more than that.


But its origins lie in a far more sinister phenomenon. ‘Amok’, meaning a furious and desperate charge, comes from Malaysia and first popped up in English in the 16th century.

Having repeatedly witnessed it in his travels to the country in the 1770s, Captain Cook wrote a definition as “to get drunk with opium…to sally forth from the house…indiscriminately killing and maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack”.

The homicidal frenzy was thought to be caused by the ‘hantu belian’, an evil tiger spirit, entering the person and compelling them on. It typically ended with them being killed by bystanders or committing suicide.

Find out the historical origins of more phrases from history


This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine


Sponsored content