Picture this: You grab a jar – say, marmalade – and grab and twist to free the lid, but though you wrap your grip around it and your wrist wrangles and wrestles with it and you wrench and wring, and even writhe and wriggle on the floor, you cannot wrest the top from the jar. In your wrath you whack it on the counter, break the glass and strew it all over, and wreck formica, marmalade, and sandwich all. And then, overwrought at your snack gone wrong, you rest… and stew.

Not all of those wr words are related etymologically. But nearly all partake of a wr phonaestheme that gives a flavour of twisting to what words it attaches to (you will note, however, that not all wr words partake in this). Actually, it would be better now to call it a graphaestheme, because it’s the written form that distinguishes it; although centuries ago it actually was pronounced [wr], now it is simply [r] – you may observe that your lips round as you say it, but they also round when you say just r. Go find a friend and say wrest and rest in random alternation, with your normal pronunciation, and see if they can tell which you’re saying. You might be thinking w, but it has no appreciable effect on your actual physical act of pronunciation.

But one reason for this whole grouping of wr words to do with twisting is that several of them are related. Wrestle is formed on the basis of wrest, which originally had to do specifically with a twisting exertion, and is related to the word for the body part that tends to make that exertion, wrist; they are both also related to writhe (which in turn is related to wreath).

On the other hand, some words that might seem related are not. Wrought, for instance, is formed from a past tense of an older form of work – the regular form worht (like modern worked) underwent a metathesis (transposition) to wroht or wroght. But, ah, it is somewhat flavoured by association, isn’t it?

Wrest is less used than several other wr words, and this is no doubt at least in part because it sounds exactly like a very commonly used word. It tends to show up in a few limited contexts. One rarely talks of wresting the lid from a jar (and if you were to write that, odds are good readers would think you meant wrestling). Rather, we wrest control or wrest power (from or away from someone or something) – or we try to do so. We may also try to wrest a living from some barely tractable land or field of endeavour: we go west, strew our seeds, and stew and swear and sweat… it will double you (w) over before you can rest. And you thought the jar was a tough twist!

Thanks to Jim Taylor for suggesting today’s word.

2 responses to “wrest

  1. if you were to write that, odds are good readers would think you meant wrestling

    There’s an interesting crash blossom there that doesn’t come from ‘headlinese’.

    I first read that as, “… odds are, good readers would think…” rather than the “… odds are good [that] readers would think…” that you meant.

    However, putting a comma after good isn’t a solution to that possible ambiguity, if only because it’s not really correct (is it?).

    Is there a solution, other than adding the word ‘that’ as I (kind of) did?

    • Ha, you’re right. That hazards of that-deletion. The solution as I see it is exactly what you did: to insert that in the appropriate place. I can’t think of another solution that doesn’t involve even more rephrasing.

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