I run a mystery theatre. The word “mayhem” is often associated with mystery, murder, mischief, etc. I wanted to know what it meant.

According to Word Detective, mayhem in the modern figurative sense means “disruption” or “ruckus,” tracing the history of the word reveals a somewhat grimmer (all right, much, much grimmer) story of “mayhem.”

Word Detective

“Mayhem” (meaning, strictly speaking, “the infliction of violent injury on a person or thing”) comes from the Anglo-Norman “maihem,” or injury, the same root word that gave us “maim.” In fact, for much of their history in English since the 13th century, “maim” and “mayhem” have been nearly interchangeable words. One could “mayhem” one’s neighbor, who would then have a “maim,” or lasting wound or injury. In modern use, however, “maim” has survived solely as a verb while “mayhem” can be either a noun or a verb, the noun meaning the act of “maiming” someone.

While “mayhem” retains the narrow sense of “serious bodily harm” in legal terminology, popular usage has broadened its meaning to cover any sort of riotous disorder or havoc. Dennis the Menace, for instance, “commits mayhem” on Mr. Wilson’s peace of mind on a daily basis.

Not to be confused with the clever Allstate commercials

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