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Mayhem

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Speaking of mayhem, lately I’ve been seeing an advertisement on television for insurance. The commercial personifies “mayhem” as tall, dark, and handsome. But not too handsome. There’s a malicious element to “mayhem’s” good looks which lets us—the faithful television viewers—know that he’s one of the bad guys.

The intent of the commercial is to alert the viewing public that mayhem can thrust his invidious face into anyone’s life at any time, thus thoroughly destroying any tranquility in our lives. Mayhem is responsible for all sorts of mishaps, calamities, and disasters. And mayhem delights in bringing catastrophes into unsuspecting lives, as often as possible. The barely disguised idea is that everyone needs protection against mayhem. In other words, peace of mind may be purchased from your friendly insurance company.

Exactly which insurance company paid for the commercial escapes me, which, when you think about it, means that the ad agency that put the commercial together and made a lot of money by so doing, failed. Because the whole point of television commercials is to make darn sure the viewers know what is being sold and who makes it. That way, the viewers can go down to their local store and buy what is being sold, thus avoiding the embarrassment of purchasing some inferior product.

So although the mayhem commercial is a winner in one sense—you find yourself watching it for the same reason people watch demolition derbies—it fails in the ultimate sense. The viewing public doesn’t know which company sells the insurance they (the viewing public) need to protect themselves against mayhem.

Too bad, because a lot of creativity went into the commercial.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is this. The commercial got me to thinking about the word “mayhem.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d used “mayhem” in a sentence. For that matter, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard anyone use “mayhem” in a sentence. Mayhem simply isn’t one of those words that come tripping off of everyone’s lips. And I believe I know why. First, most people aren’t precisely sure what mayhem means. They are aware that it refers to destruction of some type, but since they aren’t comfortable with their level of knowledge about the word’s precise definition, along with when and where it should be used, they ignore it as an option.

The second reason people steer clear of the rocky shoals of “mayhem” has to do with the timbre and ambiance of the word. Let’s face it, mayhem sounds old-fashioned and outmoded, if not plain archaic. And utilizing mayhem in everyday conversation makes me feel as if I’m playing a role in a really bad version of the movie Camelot. Instead of saying, “They beat him up,” I should say, “They committed mayhem upon him.” I’m sure you understand what I mean.

Etymologists believe the word originated from the Old Norse meitha, which meant to injure. From there, the Germans picked it up, giving it the form meiden, meaning to geld. Then the French borrowed it, whence it became mahaigne, to maim or mutilate. After a while, mahaigne hopped across the Channel to England, where it became mayme or mahaime and was defined as willful or permanent crippling of part of the human body.

Eventually, under the common law of England and Wales, mayhem was defined as the intentional and malicious removal of or damage to a body part that would prevent a person from engaging in combat. Strictly speaking, this meant that merely cutting off another person’s ear or nose was not mayhem. To be mayhem, the injury had to be permanent and involve a person’s arms and/or legs or an eye. In other words, the injury had to be so grave as to leave the victim unable to “fight like a man.” The latter phrase, fighting like a man, referred to participation in a fair fight, which meant both parties had full and unrestrained use of both arms and both legs, and their sight was unimpaired.

Committing mayhem on another person was a criminal offense.

As time went by, and as people became more civilized, i.e. less prone to spur-of-the-moment sword fights, the definition of mayhem grew to include any type of disfigurement. And it still constituted a criminal offense.

In the United States, the crime of mayhem exists even today, being defined as any permanently disabling injury. However, many courts have set aside the word mayhem. Instead, they now refer to such a crime as aggravated assault or aggravated battery. Whichever term is used, mayhem or aggravated battery, it is a felony in the United States.

Most of the confusion swirling around the word mayhem may be blamed on modern journalists, who love to insert phrases like “rioting and mayhem” in their news articles. In such instances, the journalistic phrase usually refers to nothing more than “havoc and disorder,” which could probably be described as protestors running wild through the streets, throwing rocks and bottles, smashing storefront windows, and then stealing televisions or cell phones or digital cameras. The journalistic phrase does not refer to rioters running around with machetes or chainsaws, chopping off peoples’ arms and legs. In other words, there is a vast difference between a bunch of shouting protestors engaged in looting, and berserk psychotics systematically dismembering other human beings.

Journalists use “mayhem” to sensationalize their stories, because sensational stories sell more newspapers. It’s that simple. I guess you really can’t blame them. Like everyone else, they’re just trying to make a living. Still, it’s a misuse of the word by a group of people who are vendors of words.

More often than not, it is Hollywood that uses the word correctly. Publicists describe movies as “filled with murder and mayhem.” Such descriptions usually accompany movies like Friday the 13th and Saw, where Hollywood utilizes over-the-top language to promote movies containing excessive amounts of horrific violence and insensate carnage.

So as you can see, mayhem is one of those tricky words that require a little prudence on the part of the user. Are you trying to make a point by exaggerating, or are you trying to be precise in a lexical sense? If exaggeration is your goal, mayhem is a perfect choice. If precision is desired, there are lots of other words available. A few suggestions: chaos, disorder, turmoil, pandemonium, bedlam, anarchy, and confusion.

Using mayhem willy-nilly—as in the commercial cited above, which depicts mayhem as collapsing roofs and fender-benders—may result in semantic mayhem, which, although not a felony, is certainly a major misdemeanor.

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About Randall Radic

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    The advertiser is Allstate and their ad agency is Leo Burnett. It was easy for me to find that information on the Internet. Why couldn’t you have done so?

    Anyhow, upon first reading your article, I wondered if the ad campaign postdates the mayhem in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8, 2011. If so, I thought, the insurance company must be callously and opportunistically playing on the fears aroused by that event, in which six people were shot to death in broad daylight outside a Safeway store, and 14 others were wounded.

    With my quick and easy background check, however, I found that the campaign dates from last summer. So any connection with the mayhem in Tucson is strictly in the mind of the beholder.