A party run amok by Sarah and Joe?

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I was interested in this comment by BeachSaint on Matt Yglesias' post "Duberstein for Obama":

Someone should check the seismic activity in the Simi Valley between now and election day because Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave over the antics of the McCain Campaign.

I am a registered Republican who has received extensive campaign training from the national committee. I am ProObama, ProLife. I’m not sure how much longer I can remain registered in a party run amok by the likes of Sarah Palin, Joe-the-Plumber and the other uneducated members of the radical right.

At first, I thought that the phrase "a party run amok by the likes of Sarah Palin [and] Joe-the-Plumber" was a passive of a causative: Sarah and Joe ran the party amok, i.e. caused the party to run amok, and so the party was run amok by them. (N.B. No political commentary is intended here — this is linguistics.)

But … Well, before going further into this analysis, let's back up on amok.

The OED's etymology for amok:

[ad. Malay amoq adj., ‘engaging furiously in battle, attacking with desperate resolution, rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder… Applied to any animal in a state of vicious rage’; Marsden Malay Dict.]

More about the cultural background and history of the concept can be found in the Wikipedia article. With respect to the linguistic history, the word was originally borrowed as an adjective or noun, in the Portuguese form "amuco":

[c1516 BARBOSA transl. by Ld. Stanley (Hakl. Soc. 1866) 194 There are some of them [the Javanese] who..go out into the streets, and kill as many persons as they meet..These are called Amuco.]
1663 H. COGAN Pinto's Trav. I. 199 That all those which were able to bear arms should make themselves Amoucos, that is to say, men resolved either to dye, or vanquish.

The idiom "run amok" was then just the quasi-productive use of run with an adjective, as in "run wild" or "run rampant":

1772 COOK Voy. (1790) I. 288 To run amock is to get drunk with opium.. to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage.

(Note that this sort of combination, like "go <adjective>", has apparently always been semi-productive, more in the style of derivational morphology than syntax.)

Amok has also sometimes been borrowed as a verb, e.g.

1866 C. BROOKE Saráwak I. 29 On our return to Saráwak, we found a boy only sixteen years old had amoked in the town. Ibid. 27 Such causes in most instances lead to the Malay amoking.

And some have apparently taken the expression to be something like "a-muck", as in "a-slant", "a-board", and so on, licensing the independent use of muck:

1687 DRYDEN Hind & P. III. 1188 And runs an Indian muck at all he meets.
1824 BYRON Juan X. lxix, Thy waiters running mucks at every bell.

OK, back to BeachSaint's comment ("… a party run amok by the likes of Sarah Palin …"). The problem with my first idea, that this was a passive-causative construction, is that there are only a handful of causative examples like this one on the web:

he is so shy! this intimidation gonna run him amok

But there are thousands of apparently passive examples. Some seem to be malapropisms (well, at least substitution-equivalents…) for "overrun":

I know eugene remmy, he wouldn't let his place be run amok by the likes of pocket change (would he?).
Pakistan is run amok by radical Deobandis who have taken over every aspect of Pakistani society …
Downtown is run amok by gangs and prostitutes.
The next morning as we prepared to leave, I stood looking over my father's lake and knowing that very soon it would freeze solid as granite and be run amok with snowmobiles and cars doing donuts in the snow.
Without America, the world would be run amok with terrorists and dictators.
This place was run amok by package tourists and the road to the hut was the most busy we were to see the whole trip.

Others seem to mean something like "run into the ground" or "run to ruin":

Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz gives a positive report of him and his rebuilding of his current diocese that was run amok by the previous Bishop.
Our government was asleep at the wheel when the average citizen was run amok by the predatory lending practices of some institutions.

(Note that in these cases, if anyone was "amok" it was the referent of the head of the by-phrase, i.e. the previous Bishop or the predatory lending practices. The subject of "run amok by" — the current diocese or the average citizen — were harmed by these unregulated bad actions. So they can't be passive causatives, since the previous Bishop didn't cause the diocese to run amok, but rather ran amok in such a way as to damage the diocese. However, English doesn't normally distribute thematic roles that way in construction like this, does it?)

Still other examples seem to be mean something like "runing wild" — some of these may be just typographical errors where "-ing" has been left out (though at least the first of these seems more perfective than progressive):

Squash were run amok, to the point that they were overripe and spoiling in the rows in places.
In several areas that last Wednesday night were run amok with riots, the watchful presence of troops is still evident.
At that time regulation and government were run amok and Reagan was the right man for the job.
Mr. Gilmore is worried about the future of Wall Street…too bad he was not worried a few years back when the robber-barons were run amok.
Hundreds of people were watching from the pits, and before he flew, side bets were run amok.

Then there are other examples that I'm not entirely sure how to classify:

There's more and more development than ever, and if we have open space, it can't be run amok over.
if every copy of Manhunt, GTA etc was to send signals to people saying go on a killing spree wouldnt the country be run amok of anarchists
Warmth spread throughout her skin, literally feeling her skin glowing as her body continued to be ran amok with spasms.
This is not to say that molecular biology was run amok by not having a definition; to the contrary, our collective understanding of genes grew rapidly …

And BeachSaint's phrase remains one of those that resist easy categorization. It might be a substitution of "run amok" for "overrun"  ("… a party overrun by the likes of Sarah Palin and Joe-the-Plumber …"). But there's surely also a hint of "run to ruin", and a bit of "caused to run amok" as well?

So maybe it's influenced by all of them, as is typical of morphosyntactic blends — and often also of normal lexical choice.


  1. grackle said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    It seems ambiguous at the least. I can read it as your first group of examples – the party is run amok in the sense that the party itself has through the agency of SP and J the P and others of their ilk (in the writer's sensibility) been the cause of widespread destruction and wanton brigandage. Would this not then be a passive of a causative?

  2. Tom Recht said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

    It looks to me like Dryden and Byron were analyzing "run a muck" as containing an object noun phrase, thus coming up with a count noun "muck", rather than seeing "a-muck" as parallel to "aslant" or "aboard".

  3. William Ockham said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

    Is it Star Trek's fault? "Amok" is one of the very few words that I explicitly remember learning. "Amok Time" was the name of a Star Trek episode I remember watching as a 12-year-old boy and I had to look up the word. In the show, Spock 'runs amok' because he suffers from Pon farr. I wonder that influenced a perception that 'amok' is something that happens to an entity, rather than something an entity does.

  4. Bobbie said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

    All of the examples had to do with humans or human activities, except for those squash! And everyone knows how crazy pumpkiins and zucchini can be!

  5. Virtual Linguist said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

    The entry for "a muck" (2 words) in Hobson-Jobson is one of the longest in the dictionary – it takes up more than four pages. It is only used in the active form throughout the entry. Most of the entry is devoted to the amuco, which you mention, and much of the information is included in the Wikipedia entry. These "desperadoes" (as described in Hobson-Jobson) would kill as many people as they could, only stopping when they themselves were killed. As you say, there's an element of run to ruin in the concept, almost (it seems to me) a sense of 'if we're finished, we're taking as many people as possible with us!'
    The Hobson-Jobson authors surmise that the practice and the word have their origins in India.

  6. nbm said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

    "her body continued to be ran amok" — yes, hard to classify, although you can tell what the writer is getting at.

    Meanwhile, the comparable "berserk" is used with "to go" rather than "to run;" I wonder why.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

    nbm: the comparable "berserk" is used with "to go" rather than "to run;" I wonder why.

    The most parsimonious explanation, I think, is that it's for the same reason that it's "Lebanese" and "Palestinian" rather than "Lebanian" ("Lebanonian"?) and "Palestinese". There are historical contingencies and areal effects and phonological analogies; but in the end, it's more or less arbitrary.

    It's slightly surprising that this should be true for constructions like "run amok" and "go beserk", since these look like syntactic phrases rather than complex words; but such facts show that either the boundary is a porous one, or else that it isn't in the place where the distribution of orthographic white space puts it.

  8. Gary said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

    @nbm: it's like "going postal".

    Isn't "running' an essential part of the Malay phenomenon? I've always visualized the amok-runners as swinging their krises while running in the streets. I think you can go berserk anywhere, even at home.

    I can't unpassivize the sentence. Neither "Sarah P ran the party amok" nor "Sara P ran amok the party" work for me. Maybe an editor corrected the spelling of the writer's original "party run into the muck by Sarah P".

  9. dr pepper said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 11:23 pm

    I read the original phrase as one of instigation. Sarah and Joe have caused the repubs to run amok.

    BTW i've seen several instances of plants being said to have run amok or gone berserk as a humorous way of saying they've grown a lot.

  10. John Cowan said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    "Go berserk" is surely a calque from Old Norse, where the term for "going berserk" is "berserkergang". I suspect, but can't prove, that "run amok" is likewise a calque.

  11. Ray Girvan said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

    Gary > it's like "going postal".

    Yep, that's the historical version I'm most familiar with: a very specific culture-bound syndrome involving one person suddenly going on a rampage. There's an interesting paper about it here: Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome, Manuel L. Saint Martin, Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 1999 June; 1(3): 66–70.

  12. Chris said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 10:29 am

    The word amok may be culture-bound, but the phenomenon is not; in addition to berserk (already mentioned), consider the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings. (The article linked was written before the latter.)

    P.S. The risk factors identified in the linked article make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Persecution complex practically defines the modern Republican Party, and if some people get too emotionally involved in the election and then their side loses, the party running amok may not be entirely a figure of speech. I hope this is just unfounded alarmism.

  13. Martyn Cornell said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    There's a Fleet Street urban legend that the Daily Telegraph style guide in decades gone by insisted that only Malays should be described as running amok. Whether Scandinavians were the only people who could be described as going berserk, I don't know …

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