Reeking and Wreaking

By Maeve Maddox

Here is a very small sampling taken from the web of the misuse of the verb reek:

We had an extremely wet May and June this year in New York City which reeked havoc on many tomato gardens.

SISTERS reeked havoc at Momma’s Christmas Dinner today

Although this helped in some patients, it reeked havoc with others, resulting in law suits.

that virus sure reeked havoc with your computer

The deadly twister that reeked havoc in Tuscaloosa.

Note that each error is an attempt to use the idiom “to wreak havoc,” meaning “to cause destruction or devastation.”

It would be correct to say, “A huge earthquake wreaked havoc on Japan,” or “A string of tornadoes wreaked havoc on Alabama.”

By itself, wreak means “to give expression to; to vent.”

The word havoc, meaning “devastation,” derives from a French idiom, crier havoc, “to cry (or shout) ‘havoc!'” The most familiar use of this word occurs in Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar:

ANTONY: 
…Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, 

With Ate by his side come hot from hell, 

Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice

Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;

Shouting “Havoc!” was the signal to begin battle, the result of which would be destruction.

The verb reek derives from two similarly pronounced words that were familiar in Old English times. One meant “to emit smoke” and the other meant “to emit a strong smell.” Today the verb reek may have either meaning:

The reeking chimney annoyed the neighbors.
After putting gas in the car my hands reeked of gasoline.
The homes and clothing of smokers reek of burnt tobacco.
His actions reek of self-love
.

Bottom line: Chimneys, cigars, and bad relationships “reek.” Hurricanes, earthquakes, ice storms, droughts, and war wreak destruction and devastation.

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9 Responses to “Reeking and Wreaking”

  • Kathryn

    As always, educational–not having realized that the origins of “reek” included “to emit smoke,” I had always read “reeking chimneys” as referring to the (arguably) bad smell of all that smoke!

    And. . .when reading quickly through this post, I first read “It would be correct to say. . .’A string of TOMATOES wreaked havoc on Alabama,'” and was taken aback, bemused, and delighted by the image. Sigh! More careful reading revealed a more prosaic sentence.

  • MaeveWh

    Kathryn,
    What an image!

  • Max

    Some students believed that the past tense of wreak was wrought.

    Lang may your lum reek.

  • thebluebird11

    Ha, Kathryn, that’s funny! BTW, long time no see. Off-topic but on-post, I remember when I first moved to Florida and saw a sign along the side of the road, and as I drove by at probably 80 mph, I thought it said “Emergency Shopping Site.” I thought, Wow! I really need a pair of shoes RIGHT NOW!! Kind of a disappointment to find out it really said “Emergency Stopping Site.” On-topic, this post reminds me of wreck/wrought, and retch/wretch. There will always be people who just can’t spell and get them straight. I’m more and more convinced that good spellers can be taught, but great spellers are born.
    Off-topic again, whatever happened to the button we could click on the bottom that said “notify me of responses to this post” (or something like that)? I really miss that.

  • Nan Roberts

    I have wondered why it the past tense of “to wreak” isn’t “wrought.” so these are two different verbs, I guess. But “The tsunam wrought havoc on Japan” would work, wouldn’t it?

    What is the present tense of “wrought”?

  • Kathryn

    Hey, thebluebird11–it has been awhile! I’ve been up to my ears, but just couldn’t resist celebrating the return of Maeve! I am resisting the urge to mention the occasion when I visited Washington D.C. and passed a turnoff to the [Name of President suppressed] Intelligence Center. I did a double-take, but that was probably attributable to my political opinions at the time!

    Nan Roberts–oddly enough, it appears that the infinitive for “wrought” is “to work,” making the present tense “I work, you work, he/she/it works, we work, you work, they work.” I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster Online Unabridged Dictionary; haven’t taken a peek at my print OED, but my gut reaction is that it would say much the same.

  • Padier Maker

    I’m extremely happy for being the member of this association. And I will be enjoying the daily tips writing.

  • chevywrangler

    I think one of the best I have seen was for a Rot Iron Fencing company.

    I thought does this mean it will rust away in a year or so?

  • chevywrangler

    I forgot to say I enjoy reading the daily writing tips and have created a file for them. I have also downloaded the e book and joined the FaceBook page. Being on FaceBook is a fantastic idea. To talk to other people interested in writing is brilliant.

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