Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mayhem


No doubt inspired by the name of the character in current Allstate Auto Insurance ads, an anonymous caller asked about the word mayhem.

There is some uncertainty about its origin, but it is a close relative of the word maim, to cause bodily harm and even disfigurement. Today, mayhem is taken to mean chaos and disorder caused by physical intervention.

Originally, it was a legal term (perhaps borrowed from Old French) that signified the infliction of physical injury on a person to such a degree that it compromises efforts at self-defense. The Free Dictionary by Farlex has this definition online: “1) n. the criminal act of disabling, disfiguring, or cutting off or making useless one of the members (leg, arm, hand, foot, eye) of another either intentionally or in a fight, called maiming. The serious nature of the injury makes mayhem a felony, which is called ‘aggravated assault’ in most states. 2) v. to commit mayhem is to cause gross harm in an uncontrolled fashion.”


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