March 22, 2020

Running the Show

The term “run of the mill,” which now means unremarkable and ordinary originally described the mass-produced products of a weaving mill which had not yet been graded for quality and sorted for pricing. The term also applied to manufactured factory goods, and “run of the mine” had a similar meaning for mined products.

Something that has gone out of control is often said to have “run amok (or ‘amuck’).” The word first showed up in English in a 1516 book about the inhabitants of Malaysia and Java to describe people within that population called the “Amuco” who were prone to murderous sprees, attacking everyone they encountered. About 2.5 centuries later, Captain James Cook wrote something similar about these individuals: “To run amock is to get drunk with opium… to sally forth from the house, kill the person or persons supposed to have injured the Amock, and any other person that attempts to impede his passage…indiscriminately killing and maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack.” By some accounts, possession by evil spirits caused the Amock’s behavior more than opium, but in any case, modern people or plans that “run amok” usually do so more peacefully.

The official distance of a modern-day marathon is 26 miles, 385 yards, a number rooted in both ancient legend and the whims of 20th century royalty. In 490 BC, the Persians invaded Greece, but when the Greeks won an important battle, legend says that a messenger named Pheidippides was tasked with running the 25 miles from the city of Marathon to Athens to deliver the news. Supposedly, he did so successfully, then dropped dead. To honor that dutiful messenger, the marathon’s distance was set at 40 km., or about 25 miles, for the first few modern Olympic games. However, when the 1908 Olympics were held in London, the Queen requested that the the race start on the lawn of Windsor Castle and finish at the royal box in the Olympic stadium. Apparently, this was because she wanted royal toddlers to watch the start from their nursery. This tweak was standardized in 1921, and marathons have been that distance ever since. Historians have some doubts about the ancient Greek “origin story,” though modern marathon runners remain no less impressive.