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It is often used in English to refer to the behaviour of someone who, in the grip of strong emotion, obtains a weapon and begins attacking people indiscriminately, often with multiple fatalities. The slang term going postal is similar in intent and more common, particularly in North America. Police describe such an event as a spree killing.
Some sources have identified Malays as having a particular tendency to run amok, making this an example of a culture-bound syndrome, but they are by no means the only people to do so. For example, W. W. Skeat writes in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: "A Malay will suddenly and apparently without reason rush into the street armed with a kris or other weapons, and slash and cut at everybody he meets till he is killed. These frenzies were formerly regarded as due to sudden insanity. It is now, however, certain that the typical amok is the result of circumstances, such as domestic jealousy or gambling losses, which render a Malay desperate and weary of his life. It is, in fact, the Malay equivalent of suicide. The act of running amuck is probably due to causes over which the culprit has some amount of control, as the custom has now died out in the British possessions in the peninsula, the offenders probably objecting to being caught and tried in cold blood."
The observations of Skeat about the Malay race are not unique since berserker myths and the Zulu battle trance are two other examples of the tendency of certain groups to work themselves up into a killing frenzy. The 1911 Webster Encyclopedia comments:
- Though so intimately associated with the Malay there is some ground for believing the word to have an Indian origin, and the act is certainly far from unknown in Indian history. Some notable cases have occurred among the Rajputs. Thus, in 1634, the eldest son of the raja of Jodhpur ran amok at the court of Shah Jahan, failing in his attack on the emperor, but killing five of his officials. During the 18th century, again, at Hyderabad (Sind), two envoys, sent by the Jodhpur chief in regard to a quarrel between the two states, stabbed the prince and twenty-six of his suite before they themselves fell.
References in popular culture
- John Brunner's book Stand on Zanzibar describes a society that is so overcrowded that people running amok (there called muckers) are so common everyone arms themselves, making the problem worse.
- The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Amok Time" is one of the most popular among fans of the series, and revealed much about Vulcan courtship rituals.
- Johannes Grenzfurthner's article "Every Five Seconds an Inkjet Printer Dies Somewhere" theorizes about the cultural history of 'Amok'.
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