This is a good word for someone in a state of dejection – or someone we would like to see ejected! It growls in with the opening /r/ (do you notice how you round your lips when saying it? it’s not because of the w – we always round our lips some when saying /r/). Then it releases roughly into the aggressive lax mid front vowel, closer and tighter than an /a/ but not so high and light as an /i/. And then it snatches again with the affricate, the teeth set as though ready to rip with the incisors. And finally, after a bounce, a thudding stop with a /d/. It’s like a large, nasty dog lunging at you in hopes of ripping your jugular. And perhaps a little like a sharp blast of thunder, and the rending of fabric. And then there’s the double resonance of retch – the sound of the word and the sound of the action. And the harshness of the echoes of ratchet.

The effect of this word thus varies from a bit of verbal dyspepsia to a corrosive condemnation. No wonder there are at least three musical groups called Wretched – one punk, one doom, and one death metal. Oh, and a TV series, Wretched with Todd Friel, which is at the exact opposite end of the spectrum – it takes its name from “Amazing Grace”: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”

Well, we assume that Todd Friel and his listeners and viewers are not intending to be among those cast out at the last judgement. But they may see themselves now as dejected specimens needing salvation, or perhaps outcasts of some sort, and that would be reasonable, given the word. Dejected is from Latin “throw down; cast down,” and wretched is formed from the noun wretch, which comes from wrecca “exile, banished person”. (The same Germanic root that made this word wandered in a different direction in German, becoming Recke, a fairly rare word for “hero” or “warrior”.)

So we have conditions and people we may describe as wretched because they are in a terrible condition, downcast, perhaps decrepit – a wretched hovel, perhaps. And often we want to make it clear that the described thing or person is most wretched – a common collocation.

But we also have things that are not downcast but are vile and utterly demeaning or demeaned, as for instance wretched excess, a common collocation referring to unbelievable prodigality of expenditure (Google |”wretched excess” dubai| and you will get almost 2000 hits).

And of course we have things that we wish to demean, that we see as base and beneath us (perhaps we want to eject them – eject being from Latin for “cast out”), and for these we reserve the phrase wretched little – often to describe things or people that are not in fact physically small. It’s a phrase one almost has to spit after saying.

Also seen out with wretched fairly often: life, thing, man, and refuse. Refuse? The noun, not the verb (so note the echo in the first syllable). It’s on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty, near the end of the poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus (written for the statue):

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Thanks to Dawn Loewen for suggesting wretched.

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