When someone is acting crazy or panicking, we say that they’re running amok. The roots of this expression come from the peak of British colonization, during 18th & 19th centuries.
First, in order to give you an understanding of everything, I need to give you a brief history of the Opium Wars.
See, back in the day, the British Empire had colonies across almost the entire planet. They used to say, “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” & that was pretty much the truth. The Crown needed a way to keep a watchful eye on all its subjects, but had a tough time doing so because the military was thinly stretched out almost everywhere. In order to keep tabs, the British government was very ruthless & it stooped to some pretty dirty strategies.
One of these strategies was the distribution of what are now considered illegal drugs. One of the most famous instances (Note how I didn’t say, “first,” or, “only.”) of the British using drugs to get their way was when they wanted to monopolize the tea trade & China refused to let them. See, the British government exported drugs, which were then legal, to the Chinese in exchange for the tea. When opium & cocaine started to become addictive problems for the Chinese, their government put heavy restrictions on the inflow of the substances.
Now, the British didn’t like this because, hey, they loved their tea & weren’t getting nearly as much of it. What did they do? They smuggled drugs illegally into Chinese ports, flooding the population with opium & cocaine. The Chinese knew what the British were up to & weren’t about to take it lying down, so they stopped the outflow of tea. The British then retaliated by blockading the port of Hong Kong, until the Chinese were forced to use their navy to try to stop it. Here’s where it gets messed up . This was the plan the whole time. See, they correctly anticipated that a massive chunk of the Chinese population, including the sailors, would be hopeless addicts by the time the first shots were fired & that they, themselves wouldn’t be. They quickly defeated the Chinese navy (The sailors were too busy being jittery & paranoid, or slumped against a ship’s mast in a euphoric heap, to fight) in the First Opium War & seized Hong Kong & by default, the tea trade. Messed up, huh?
Okay, so I know that was a long story & I also know it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the phrase “running amok”. I promise it does & that I told you that story to tell you this one:
About 50 years before all of that, the English military started to make a presence in Indonesia. Fast forward to the Opium Wars & they now have a smart, yet dirty way of controlling their colonies. Guess whose population quickly became drug addicts?
The addicts included one tribe in particular, which was already known for its warrior spirit (This warrior spirit is also known as regressing into a blind rage & indiscriminately butchering men, women & children from captured villages). Even on their home turf, members of this tribe would become possessed by the spirit without any warning whatsoever, buy a weapon from a local market, & flip out & kill everyone. They referred to this fighting spirit as mengamuk. The rough translation is, “to make a furious and desperate charge.” People possessed by the spirit were called Amuco. As you can imagine, a tribe on insane amounts of uppers, which already poses a threat because of its ruthless brutality in combat & for random public killing sprees before getting their hands on cocaine, wound up scaring the crap out of the colonial soldiers. The English Regulars were understandably quite intimidated by the Amuco & rumors started flying about these super coked-out warriors. In true colonial fashion, they bastardized the actual word & replaced it with an Anglicized version that’s easier to say.
So, when you say someone is running amok, you’re actually implying that they’re an indiscriminately murderous drug using, spree killing warrior.
…I mean, I guess if you dropped the warrior part, you’d be kind of right, if you were talking about someone crazed out on bath salts, right?