Tag Archives: “Pilgrim’s Progress”

“It is important to note that God’s forgiveness does not mean Christians are free to run amuck.”

By the time I was in high school I had seen “amok” in print, had thought it was a very peculiar spelling, had looked it up, and had then used it myself from time to time.  The OED lists a number of spellings for this term—amuck, a muck, amocke, amock, amok, amoke. Webster’s, the only spelling resource I used in my youth, goes with amok, noting that amuck is a variant. I read that it was originally applied to “a frenzied Malay” (the word is from the Malay, and an English citation from the 1600s gives it as a noun, amoco, meaning “frenzied Javanese mass killer.” Nothing to do with oil companies, by the way.)

Possibly it’s describing a person in the same kind of exalted violent frenzy as the Berzerkers, who gave us “berzerk,” but that has nothing to do with what my student wrote, even though it has momentarily dashed to the forefront of my brain.

The main adjectival sense used by other Englishmen in the 1600s and forward is “engaging furiously in battle, attacking with desperate resolution, rushing in a desperate frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.”  Marvell in 1672 wrote of someone, “Like a raging Indian he runs a mucke (as they call it there) stabbing every man he meets.” The OED notes that the adjective is rarely used with any verb other than “run.” The OED also provides the aspect that fits the context in which I first encountered “amok”: “applied to any animal in a state of vicious rage.” I read it in connection with elephants…and, I believe, sex.

However you spell it, it’s a great phrase, “to run amok” (especially if you don’t think only Malays, Javanese, and “Indians” do it). I read it in a story set during the British Raj, and to me it has a distinctly British tone and attitude.

My student was writing about the Christian Bible and Jesus’ emphasis on a forgiving God. I like that he realized Jesus wasn’t giving blanket permission to sin one’s brains out. But “important to note,” with its scholarly overtones, and the churchy “God’s forgiveness” lead so madly into those potentially wild-eyed and murderous Christians and the pursed lips of onlooking disapproval in “run amok.” Presumably if we don’t note that God is not giving free license to Christians we might imagine, or join, stampeding congregations bent on murder and mayhem on a vast scale. And if the reader is Yours Truly, those Christians all look a bit like elephants.

One Christian does run a-muck in a way, actually, and that’s Christian, protagonist of John Bunyan’s 1678 allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. Resolved to leave his home in the City of Destruction and travel to the Celestial City, he’s only a short distance out of town when he falls into the Slough of Despond (one of the great place-names in literature!). It’s so mucky in there that he can’t really climb out by himself, let alone run; he needs the help of, guess who, Help. He is not bent on death and destruction, either: in fact, that’s what he’s trying to avoid. Nevertheless, he gets himself mixed up in my student’s sentence, in my imagination, by association with that “amuck.” My student had no thought for the Slough of Despond; that’s Brit Lit II, not World Lit I.

So, technically, no errors here. Just a funny sentence. And the better-read you are, the funnier it is.


“One must go through the Despond of Slough.”

My student is writing about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the story that has provided me with a name for my domicile toward the end of any semester: the Slough of Despond. Bunyan places this swampy stretch just past Pilgrim’s house, and when he takes a notion to cast down his burden of sin and go to the Celestial City his first adventure is to fall into it.

The student’s error is mere word reversal, but oh how charming a reversal it is. Another student last semester wrote of a facility I want to recommend to some certain managing types I’ve known: the Center for Control Disease. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. The reason for such transposals is unclear, although I’d surmise that for someone who’s never heard of a Slough or of Despond, or someone who can’t quite picture “disease control,” the word order may not seem to make much difference.

“Slough” is a fascinating word. Prepping for my PhD orals I thought to look up its pronunciation just so that, if asked to comment on Bunyan, I wouldn’t make any truly basic errors. I learned from the venerable Webster that the word has three different pronunciations, and each is attached to a separate meaning. The “despond” one rhymes with “cow.”

That discovery drove me to drop everything (this has always been how I deal with important approaching deadlines) and write a poem about spelling, which you may read here if you’re curious.

Desperately proud of myself, I showed the ditty to the then department chair, Prof. George H. Ford. He chuckled, and then commented that it made him think of “that poem, ‘fall friendly bomb….'”

For the complete text of THAT poem, and a description of the British city bombed (like other British cities) during World War II and immortalized in Sir John Betjeman’s perky verses, click over to the inevitable Wikipedia. It begins

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

I guess I’m not the only person who deals with impending disaster by writing about Sloughs.  Betjeman’s description of the place actually makes me think there might be a spot there that the locals call the Despond of Slough. Big tourist attraction? And evidently the poem threw said locals into despond, for which he later expressed regret.

Well, go forth, pilgrim. Do not fall into the Slough of Despond, or enter the Despond of Slough either.