Daily Archives: March 6, 2009

wreak

A common dancing-partner of havoc, also seen out some evenings with with vengeance and occasionally damage. The word itself wreaks a little bit of havoc when it comes time to say it. Should it be like “reek”? But we don’t want to suggest that there’s a smell involved! Doesn’t “wreck” seem a better sound, given the usual usage? And so you will often hear it the latter way, though the dictionaries all agree it’s supposed to be the former. Many people will also swear that, even with the correct vowel, they say wreak and reek differently. It’s true that you round your lips a bit at the beginning of wreak. However, you also round your lips a bit at the beginning of reek. In North American English, with our retroflex r‘s, there is some labial coarticulation. Ah, who wrought such rot! But there it is. (Note that wrought is actually an old past tense of work, not of wreak: wrought havoc is from work havoc, not much said anymore.) But has this word any relation to wreck or to wrack? I reckon so. They all come from a Teutonic root meaning “drive, press, move,” cognate with the Latin that gave us urge. From that this word came to mean “banish,” then “vent, express,” then “inflict vengeance,” then “inflict damage.” Ah, such an urge, of which a wrong is the waker! But when one goes to wreak on another, which one is the weaker?