Why do we say ‘run amok’?

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. This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of History Revealed

Why do we say ‘run amok’? © Getty Images

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.