Is it Running Amuck or Amok?

We have all seen parents who allow their kids to run amok at the shopping mall. Or do these rowdy little rascals run amuck? You have surely seen both spellings and wondered: “is it amuck or amok?” 

A Little History

The phrase “to run amok” was first used in the English language in the 1670s. The word amok originated from the Malay (a language spoken in Malaysia) word amuk, which means “to furiously attack.” The widely used expression we hear today generally means “to run about wildly.”   

When used as a noun (which is rare), the word amok typically means “a murderous frenzy.” Prior to entering our lexicon, the word was used in its Portugeuse form amuco or amouco to mean “a mad Malay”. 

In England, it was at first spelled amuck, as can be seen in Andrew Marvell’s 1672 account The Rehearsal Transpros’d: “Like a raging Indian . . . he runs a mucke (as they call it there) stabbing every man he meets.”

Today’s Confusion

An online search provides plenty of examples of both amok and amuck being used. For example, there is a 5k race titled the “Run Amuck Mud Run,” while a popular podcast by Tracy Pierson, Spenser Proctor, and Aaron Morris is called “Running Amok.” Here is the Wall Street Journal using the “o” spelling: “the company’s culture is obsessed with nonstop selling that ran amok.” And then there is the online clothing store called RunAmuckOutfitters.  

The Final Word: Amuck or Amok?

So which one is the correct way to spell the word? Well, it seems that amuck was indeed the preferred spelling during the first part of the 20th century, with Henry Watson Fowler (a noted “lexicographical genius”) preferring the “u” spelling. However, time has sided with amok, and it has been winning the battle since the 1940s. In fact, Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) estimates that for every use of amuck, the evidently preferred amok is used three times. The words’ online presence clearly reflects this: amuck receives just under a million hits, while its more popular variant amok garners over 4 million.  

Summary

So to summarize, amok and amuck are two variations of the same adverb. Their most common use is in the expression to run amok, which means out of control. 

  • While both amok and amuck have a common origin from the Malay languange, amuck has fallend out of style. 
  • Today, amok is the more acceptable spelling.

And if you enjoy shedding light on proper spelling of popular expressions, here is an article explaining the difference between “bear with me” and “bare with me.”

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