You’ve probably seen the Allstate insurance commercials which feature an excellent actor and stunt man , Dean Winters, who purports to be someone known as “Mayhem.” I cringe as he survives crashes, explosions, roofs caving in, and any number of very effectively screened disasters.
His point is that mayhem happens…even to the best of us. That is to say….we are all vulnerable to disasters in our lives, and Allstate is there to cover us if we only sign up and pay the premiums. It’s very effective advertising.
The word mayhem is one that lurks in the darker corners of our lexicon. It’s not a word we want to use regularly because it signifies a situation none of us wishes to face. Everything is crashing in around us. Disaster abounds. Pain, suffering, even death prevails. Life, itself, is called into question, and there seems to be little we can do to prevent the circumstances which are about to occur.
When I think of mayhem I think of a war scene, a powerful tornado striking, or a hurricane overtaking a community. There are cars flying through the air, buildings collapsing, people screaming, explosions everywhere. Chaos reigns.
Mayhem is a word that carries the scent of sulpher and the sound of an out of control acid -rock band. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary it has a common theme throughout the various languages from which it snuck into English.
Middle English mayme, mahaime, from Anglo-French mahaim mutilation, mayhem, from maheimer, mahaigner to maim, probably of Germanic origin; akin to Middle High German meiden gelding, Old Norse meitha to injure.”
Have you ever seen so many violent words in one definition? That’s what mayhem produces. The word, itself, takes on the nature of being an evil person. The Allstate people have it right in personifying the word mayhem in a man. He is nasty, evil, and sadistic…enjoying every minute of his destructive and malicious existence.
It’s interesting to note that Allstate doesn’t claim to prevent mayhem. The company simply makes the point that such a thing exists, and that the company is prepared to respond to it.
So what is the source of mayhem? Some might say that it is the character of the Devil incarnate. Others might espouse the idea that mayhem is the personification of reality…bad things happen to good people…without their having to had anything at all to do with it.
I prefer to put my vote in the hat of science on this matter. There are things that happen in the world which are terrible and which occur independent of human initiation. Oh, there are some things that fall into the mayhem category which are planned and executed by very evil people. (Think holocaust!) They are, indeed, part of the definition. But most of what happens in order to earn the nametag of mayhem seem to come from acts of nature or direct results of the breakdown of mechanical expectations. When a train derails and spills volatile chemicals on a small town in Canada it is not a planned event. It just happens…in the most recent case by human failure. But not human intention. Tragedies and crises are part of the reality of human existence. Even Ozzie and Harriet Nelson had burst water pipes and disasters in their lives! (Rick died in a plane crash.) Mayhem is not restricted to the criminal element or war.
Photo Credit: NY Times