Mayhem: Violent behavior, physical assault, or disorder. In criminal law, mayhem is the infliction of physical injury on a person so as to impair that person’s capacity for self-defense. The word entered English in the late 15th century from Anglo-French maihem, which means “injury, harm, damage”; it’s related to maim.
Nest Labs, makers of “smart devices” for the home—including a thermostat and smoke detector—last week introduced a new product, the Nest Cam video camera. (The product is the result of Nest’s 2014 acquisition of Dropcam.) Ads for the product put a cozy spin on “mayhem”:
“Witness the mayhem in glorious HD.” Outdoor ad, Fourth Street, San Francisco, June 21.
Nest Cam has a security function: according to a Nest.com blog post, it can help you see “if an intruder turns on a flash light, or if headlights flash across your window.” But Nest Labs downplays the scare factor. Rather, the device helps you “save the stuff you want to remember” and be prepared “every time your kid or pet does something cute.” Muddy footprints on the carpet, a toilet-paper trail across the lawn—that’s the domesticated “mayhem” Nest hopes you’ll record and view.
This isn’t the first appearance of mayhem in advertising. In 2010 insurance company Allstate introduced a character called Mayhem, played by the actor Dean Winters, who personified every catastrophe that could befall your house or car. Also contributing to the cuteification of “mayhem” was the 2012 debut, at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood, of Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, a simulator ride based on the animated film(s) Despicable Me.
There is no Minion named Mayhem, but there’s a minionesque aspect to the Nest Cam.
Minion. Nest Cam.
From another corner of the culture comes Mayhem Parva (literally “small mayhem”), a fixture in British crime fiction. Here’s how the OED defines it:
Mayhem Parva n. [ < mayhem n. + classical Latin parva, feminine singular of parvus little (see parvi-comb. form), after English village names with this as second element (e.g. Ash Parva, Shropshire, Ashby Parva, Leicestershire, etc.)] (esp. in critical writing) the genre of mystery stories set in a rural English village; (the generic name for) a typical English village as the setting for a violent crime; freq. attrib., as Mayhem Parva school, etc.
The OED’s earliest citation for Mayhem Parva is dated 1971, from Snobbery with Violence, a murder mystery by Colin Watson set in the fictional village of Mayhem Parva, “where amateur lady sleuths competed with seasoned Scotland Yarders to nab the least likely suspect.”