Worked, Wrought and Overwrought

By Maeve Maddox

Judging by comments and emails I receive whenever I write about the verb wreak, some English speakers believe that the past tense of wreak is wrought.

That’s not the case.

Wrought is an archaic past tense form of the verb work.

Work and wreak derive from different Old English verbs: wyrcan (do, make) and wrecan (to avenge). Both work and wreak belong to a class of irregular verbs that have acquired regular -ed endings in modern English. If wreak had remained irregular, its forms would probably look like these: “wreak, wroke, (have) wroken.”

The verb work has a modern -ed ending, but the old past tense wrought survives in a few contexts and idioms.

Writing in the early 20th century, H. W. Fowler (Modern English Usage) commented on the fact that the past form of work was in a state of transition:

The decline of the form wrought is so manifest, yet so far from complete, that it is impossible to say from year to year where idiom still requires it and where it is already archaic.

In the 1965 edition, Gowers, changed “disappearance” to “decline,” perhaps because the old form continued to be used in the sense of done, made, fashioned, or brought about:

The stage show is tight and well-wrought.—1997 book about Jazz.
The metaphorical movement of coming into that understanding is beautifully wrought with the use of a large black drapery that the congregation passes beneath as four of the dancers hold the corners.—2013 opera review

To see the changes Edward Snowden wrought, just look at your smartphone—2014 headline.

The reason that many speakers associate wrought with wreak may have to do with the fact that we have two idioms with the word havoc. A storm or other disaster “wreaks havoc,” but people and institutions can “work havoc.”

The “works havoc” idiom is not as common as it was, but it is still found in recent use:

Disability is damaging to one’s self-esteem. It works havoc with one’s relationships and can do irrevocable harm to an entire family’s life.—1991 Congressional Record.

In actual fact, the volume of such movements is fairly modest, but their public echo is deafening and works havoc in politics and the labour movement. 2006, Library of Economics and Liberty.

It is as the past tense of work that wrought appears in an obituary of Margaret Thatcher:

Saying it would take years to cure Britain of the havoc wrought by socialism, Mrs. Thatcher warned, “Things will get worse before they get better.”

The adjective overwrought, on the other hand, does not mean the same thing as the adjective overworked.

An “overworked employee” is one who does an excessive amount of work. Overworked can also be applied to nonhuman things to mean that they are being used to excess:

”Unique” is one of the most overworked words in advertising.

The phrase “people are our most important resource” has become a tired, overworked cliche. 

Gently massage overworked muscles, prompting nutrient-rich blood to flow through, replenishing them.

The adjective overwrought can convey a sense of exhaustion from overwork, but overwrought describes the emotional agitation, impatience, and shortness of temper associated with exhaustion:

According to a government survey, US workers feel overwrought and unproductive.

The [employee] may be subject to verbal abuse by juveniles and will be required to remain calm in stressful situations involving agitated, irate or overwrought juveniles and family members.

When AU administrator James Mooney polled professors about grade complaints, he was appalled to learn that some overwrought parents call professors directly to complain. 

Applied to nonhuman entities, overwrought means “excessively elaborate or exaggerated.” Here are some examples of this use:

[The instructor’s] supervisors at first supposed his overwrought language denoted a mental affliction.

Overwrought descriptions like these sap the power from the scene.

The film suffers from an overwrought narrative, with one melodramatic event after another.

After a thousand years, wrought continues to enrich the language. It is not, however, the past tense of wreak.

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5 Responses to “Worked, Wrought and Overwrought”

  • Charles Higginson

    Odd, my 1965 copy of Fowler/Gowers, which I have in my hand, retains the original term “decline of the form wrought” and not “disappearance.”

  • Maeve

    Charles,
    I’ve managed to mix up the editions. Fowler (1963 reprint) has “disappearance” and Gowers (1965) has “decline.”
    Thanks.

  • Jerry

    I suppose wrought iron fencing will not go out of fashion, evne though wrought is declining in usage. Is the suffix “wright”, e.g., wheelwright related to wrought?

  • Maeve

    Jerry,
    A “wright” is a “worker,” hence, wheelwright and playwright.
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/rite-write-right-wright/

  • David Knuttunen

    I haven’t researched this, but I assume that the “wrought” in “overwrought” also means “worked,” but in a way that references the object produced by work rather than the worker; i.e., the same sense as “wrought iron”. Thus, a person who is called “overwrought” could also be referred to as “all worked up,” and and overwrought object has been overly elaborated by the fabricator.

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