Meaning: 1. (Law) Intentionally maiming a person in order to disable and render them defenseless. 2. Wanton destruction. 3. Havoc, riotous chaos, total disorder.
Notes: Today’s Good Word is a rarity, indeed: an English word pronounced exactly as it is spelled! (Don’t listen to the US dictionaries; always pronounce the [h] in the middle. That’s what it is there for.) Mayhem is a lexical orphan without any related words, though our British cousins have used it as a verb in the past.
In Play: In peacetime, mayhem is, unfortunately, often associated with sporting events: “When the Dinglethwarp Turtledoves defeated the Swollingham Drubbers in the final seconds of the game, mayhem broke out among the fans.” We do hear this word often used hyperbolically, though: “Were I to suggest the company reduce its lunch break from an hour to a half hour, I’m afraid that mayhem might break out on the plant floor.”
Word History: Old French mahaigne “injury, mutilation” becamemahain then mahaim in Anglo-Norman, the French spoken in England after the Norman Conquest (1066). The Normans (so called because they originated in Normandy, France) picked up the word from a nearby Celtic language, Breton, where the word for “maim, mutilate” was mac’hagnañ. English borrowed the Anglo-Norman variantmahaim and developed it in two directions. In one instance the inconvenient H in the middle was dropped, leaving only maim. The other direction retained the H but only after folk etymology converted it into two recognizable English words, may and hem. The new “compound” survived despite its sounding more like the decision of a seamstress than an act of destruction. (In order to avoid any mayhem among our dear subscribers, let us now thank Dr. L. B. Tague for suggesting today’s riot of a Good Word.)