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TWTS: Havoc isn't the only thing that gets wreaked

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When there’s havoc, it’s often wreaked. When we wreak something, it’s often havoc. Hence, we wreak havoc.

As a phrase, “wreak havoc” is fairly common. Our listener Ari Shwayder wanted to know where it comes from and what each of these words mean. It’s a good question, since we so rarely hear one without the other.

Ari also said, “I often hear people say ‘wrecked havoc,’ which makes slightly more sense as a way of saying ‘to cause havoc’ since when havoc occurs, things are often wrecked.”

Makes sense to us, since “havoc” is defined as general destruction or chaos or disorder. However, the phrase is definitely “wreaked havoc.”

“Wreak” is a Germanic verb that goes back to Old English. Its original meaning was something along the lines of “to drive” or “to press forward.” From there, it came to include the idea of venting or driving out feelings, e.g., “to wreak disappointment” or “to wreak fear.”

Later on, “wreak” starts to pick up meanings related to revenge or vengeance, before eventually taking on up more generalized meaning of “causing” – typically, harm or damage. Thus, we get “wreak havoc.”

If something is being wreaked in contemporary American English, ninety percent of the time it’s havoc. There was a time when vengeance or destruction were commonly wreaked, but “wreak havoc” overtook these, starting in the first half of the 20th century.

In terms of havoc, more often than not, it’s something we wreak. However, we can also “create havoc” or “work havoc.” Those don’t come up very often, but they’re relevant to another question: What’s the past tense of “wreaked havoc?” To find out, listen to the audio above.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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