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Dr. Goodword
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Postby Dr. Goodword » Sat Jul 14, 2018 9:11 pm

• 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 "slave", to Czech as vrah "murderer, and 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 <i>work</i>" 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.)
• The Good Dr. Goodword

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Re: Wreak

Postby misterdoe » Mon Jul 16, 2018 1:13 am

That German relative is pronounced "rekken," no? :?

George Kovac
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Re: Wreak

Postby George Kovac » Mon Jul 16, 2018 10:00 am

The conflation of wreck and wreak that Dr. Goodword notes made me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel “Player Piano.” The novel is set in a dystopian future where automation (what today we’d call artificial intelligence) has displaced most work for humans except a small elite engaged as managers, engineers and bureaucrats. Those unfortunate humans (the majority of the population) who could not compete economically in this society were relegated to membership in either the Army or the “Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps,” an organization known colloquially as the “Reeks and Wrecks”.
“The messy layers of human experience get pulled together, and sometimes ordered, by words.” Colum McCann “But Always Meeting Ourselves” New York Times, June 15, 2009

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