“Mayhem” isn’t a word you see a lot of.
Sure, it might slip into the sales pitch for a shoot-em-up game or roll off a preacher’s tongue at a sermon, but chances are that you and your buddy aren’t going to be throwing it around over coffee. Well—unless you’re both die-hard Palahniuk fans and planning your own Project Mayhem. But even then, “mayhem” isn’t exactly a household noun.
In fact, “mayhem” wasn’t a noun at all when it first came into use. Evan Morris, who writes a column on word origins called “The Word Detective,” unearths the word’s roots:
"Mayhem," meaning "the infliction of violent injury on a person or thing," comes from the Anglo-Norman "maihem," or injury, which also gave us "maim." In fact, for much of their history in English since the 13th century, "maim" and "mayhem" have been nearly interchangeable words. One could "mayhem" one's neighbor, who would then have a "maim," or lasting wound or injury.
The word retains some of its original meaning in the legal world—the world that this blog loves the most! In legalese, “mayhem” is assault with the intent to maim or disfigure. Is it really a surprise that the word has come to be synonymous with violent chaos and disorder?
Let's examine the legal specifics of a mayhem charge.
One can only be charged with mayhem if he or she has maliciously and unlawfully removed, disfigured, or rendered useless another person’s arm, hand, finger, leg, foot, toe, tongue, eye, nose, ear, or lips. Unsurprisingly, mayhem is a fairly serious felony.
If you’ve had the grave misfortune to have lost a piece or two of yourself to a violent encounter (and we’re not talking broken hearts and angry breakups), a good criminal lawyer is definitely in the cards for you. And if you’ve maybe, accidentally, kind of sunk your teeth into someone and bitten off their ear, you definitely want to ring up a criminal defense lawyer before you spend the next 20 years wearing stripes.
by Kate Beall