I have a new post up on the OxfordWords blog, “Background checks: everyday words with legal origins.” From nude to innuendo, a great number of common words have a surprisingly legal record. Here’s my bit on mayhem:
Dating back to the 15th century, mayhem historically denoted a criminal offense. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, mayhem was ‘the infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair that person’s capacity for self-defence.’ In the late 1800s, American English expanded mayhem to ‘violent behaviour’ more generally, but it’s not until 1976 that the OED cites its modern usage for ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder.’ Mayhem emerged as a variant of maim, rooted in an Old French word for ‘to injure’ or ‘to cripple’ and which perhaps also supplied mangle. The ultimate origins of both mayhem and maim are unknown, but scholars have suggested roots in Indo-European verbs for ‘to cut’ and ‘to change’.