Sunday, July 10, 2011


Salt Riot in Kolomenskoe by Nikolay Nekrasov, 1821–1878
Of course I  know what mayhem is. Or perhaps, fortunately for me, I don't--not if you have to experience something to really know it. We often use the word in a hyperbolic way to express our sense of things being out of control, sometimes violently out of control. I also think of mayhem as having an agent--as in 'committing mayhem'--rather than as an impersonal chaos, such as can come about through natural disaster. And of course I think of it as being something violent, which not all chaos is.

But what is mayhem really? I feel it must have ancient roots, but perhaps it is just something that was coined in a 1920s ad campaign.

Let's see.


Well, it looks like the word drifted from a more personal meaning to a larger collective one over time. It's first meaning had to do with injury, with deliberately inflicting damage upon another person. In law, it means the intentional crippling, mutilating or disfiguring of another person. It comes out of the idea of doing the kind of damage to an adversary severe enough that they can't retaliate. That is why originally, in British common law, it had to do with cutting off a limb or damaging an eye. According to wikipedia 'cutting off an ear or a nose was deemed not sufficiently disabling'. And it wasn't until 1697 that a case called Fetter vs. Beale allowed that when a person is battered to the point where part of his skull comes out of his head, that too is mayhem.

Yikes.  If such humor wasn't beneath me, I would say that that was pretty much a no-brainer.

You can get discouraged when you try to figure out word origins.  I mean sure, 'maim' sounds a bit like mayhem, but even I can see that would be a bit of a stretch. Except it isn't. Both mayhem and maim come from the same source. They derive from the Old French mahaigne (bodily harm, loss of limb) and are related to Middle High German words like meiden or meidem, which mean 'gelding'--presumably the noun and the verb. It all goes back to a theorized ProtoIndoEuropean root *mei--to change, or in one version I read, to cut. Altering by cutting has been with us for a long time.

However none of this explains why a very current meaning of mayhem is also chaos, or a state a physical disturbance. It doesn't explain why, at this very moment, there is something called Rockstar Mayhem Festival playing right here in Northern California, and though it looks pretty wild in a heavy metal sort of way, I am pretty sure that depriving people of their limbs is not part of the show.

I've seen two different ideas about why mayhem came to have its very popular secondary meaning. One is that the word was reassessed in the mid 1500s to mean rowdiness, chaos and confusion, and that this is because such states are an aftereffect of violence. Here's a nice little article on Lexical Chaos--English has a lot of words for it. But elsewhere I've read the idea that the second meaning of mayhem comes out of a mistake. In this scenario people understood the word to have a new more generalized meaning after hearing or more likely reading it attached to other things in phrases like 'violence and mayhem' or 'rioting and mayhem'.

In any case, let us hope that Rockstar Mayhem Festival involves no true mayhem at all.

Not even of the headbashing kind.

(I was going to put a heavy metal video there, but couldn't bring myself to do it. Even I have my limits.)


  1. Love this word, especially its origin. Learned about its original meaning in my criminal law class. The name of the case the word starred in escapes me now, but it made for a lively discussion!

    -Brian O

  2. Brian, yeah, I figured that any lawyerly types who stopped by here would pretty much have this one down. But I agree it is a pretty great word in both its forms.

    Although I still hope not to have to actually live through any.

  3. Loved this!

    I looked up "mayhem" and discovered the "maim" connection when reading The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem: a Lively Account of Famous Writers & Their Feuds by Myrick Land!! A lot of literary maiming going on in that!

  4. Oh, I'll bet! Writers can be vicious to each other.

    It does make for fun reading, though!

  5. How is cutting off someone's nose not "sufficiently disabling"? That's pretty harsh if you ask me, but, then again, what do I know?

  6. Thanks for this one, Seana. For the briefest of moments, I hoped to see a Godsmack video.

    Oh well. Maybe next time. ;-)

  7. How relevant!

    Brian O

  8. I guess losing your nose would be disfiguring, not disabling. You could still scale a wall with your sword and slay your enemy. Which, if someone cut off my nose, I would definitely do.

    Nate, I actually kind of wanted to put up some death metal video, but then I realized that it would be there in my blog, for perpetuity.

    Brian, oddly, I was flicking the channels and came across the 30 second news ad for this crime. It sounded so gruesome that I did not wait around.

    I am kind of surprised that the loss of this limb didn't come up in my researches...

  9. I too love the word. I dont think I've ever used it, but its a great word with a great origin.

  10. You may not have used it, but have you ever committed it?