• havoc •
hæ-vêk • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)
Meaning: 1. Devastation, destruction, ruin. 2. Total confusion, chaos.
Notes: This word has an unusual spelling for an English word. Words in English ending on a K-sound following O or U are usually spelled CK. It has no lexical family, perhaps for this reason. This word is most often used in such phrases "wreak havoc", "work havoc", and "play havoc with". All these phrases mean "devastate, destroy, throw into confusion".
In Play: First, let's see a physical instance of this word: "Hurricanes wreak havoc all along the eastern coastline and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico every fall." Of course, this word need not be shackled to the physical world: "Helen Highwater wrought havoc in the all-male office, especially among the men who wanted the job she was hired for."
Word History: Today's word comes from Anglo-French havok in the phrase crier havok "cry havoc", a signal to soldiers to seize plunder. It somehow got from Old French havot "pillaging, looting", related to Old French haver "to attack". It is curious that Old English hafoc "hawk" seems closer to today's havoc than French havot. (F is just a V without vibrating the vocal cords.) But I can't make the connection. Both hafoc and havot come from the Proto-Indo-European word kap- "seize". This is the source of English have and a borrowed word, capture, from Latin capere "to seize, catch". (Without wreaking even the slightest havoc in the life of Albert Skiles, let us now thank him for recommending today's Good Word.)
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