• wreak •
Pronunciation: reek • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb, transitive
Meaning: 1. To inflict, as to wreak our wrath on someone. 2. To vent, to express forcefully, as to wreak indignation. 3. (Ageing if not already archaic) To avenge, as to wreak the wreckage left by a divorce.
Notes: Here is a word that is in trouble. Because it implies wreckage in some sense, more and more people are saying "wreck havoc" rather than "wreak havoc". Wrecking havoc, I suppose, would mean to end the havoc. What we generally mean, however, is to inflict havoc somewhere, so wreak is the only word to use. The problem is that this word is leaking out of English, clinging for its life to havoc in the phrase just cited. Today it hardly knows its family, the adjectives wreakful "vengeful" or wreakless "forgiving".
In Play: If we are going to keep today's Good Word in the English language, we must return to using it with direct objects other than havoc: "Don't wreak your anger on me, Maddy; I didn't let the goat gnaw your straw hat!" Why this word is weakening its grip on the language is mystifying because it is so useful: "Someone please make sure that Donny Brooke doesn't wreak his political views on the guests at the reception."
Word History: Today's word is the descendant of Old English wrecan "to avenge". Looking beyond Old English we find evidence that the root of this verb originally meant "to drive hard, to punish" for while its German descendant rächen means "to avenge", the same root came to Lithuanian as vergas "distress" and to Russian as vrag "enemy". Despite all the distressful meanings of its descendants, the Proto-Indo-European base from which all these words derived seems to be *werg- "to work", the origin of English "work". This word turned up in Latin as urgere "to press, push hard", which English impressed into its own service as urge. (Lest displeasure be wreaked upon us all, let us thank Robin Heggeland for so graciously suggesting today's Good Word.)