“Wreck,” “Wreak,” and Other [rek] Words

By Maeve Maddox

I saw this in an article about caring for a laptop:

If you store your laptop in the vehicle for any period of time, keep in mind that the extreme temperature ranges within the vehicle could wreck havoc with your laptop.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen the word “wreck” substituted for “wreak” in the expression “wreak havoc.”

Both words have similar origins, but in modern usage they are pronounced differently and have different meanings.

wreak [reek] v. to bring about, inflict, as in wreak havoc, wreak vengeance

wreck [reck] v. to cause ruin or damage

wreck [reck] n. something that has been ruined

The Old English verb wrecan meant “to drive, drive out, avenge.” Old Norse had a similar word. In Anglo-French these words evolved into a noun, wrec meaning “goods cast ashore after a shipwreck, flotsam.”

The word reckless has a different origin. The Old English word reccan (past tense rohte) meant “to care, to trouble about, heed.” From it came a noun, rece meaning “care.” A reckless person doesn’t care what happens.

The word reckon comes from another OE verb spelled reccan (past tense reahte). This one meant “to expound, relate.” One still talks about “reckoning accounts,” or, in a metaphorical sense, “the Final Reckoning.”

“I reckon” is a dialect expression for “I guess, I suppose.”

Then there’s reek.

reek [reek] n. a bad smell
reek [reek] v. to emit a bad smell

The Old English word rec meant “smoke from burning material.” Reek acquired the sense of “stench” in the 17th century.

So, back to the words that inspired this article: the next time you want to wreak havoc, don’t wreck your credibility by misspelling or mispronouncing wreak.

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19 Responses to ““Wreck,” “Wreak,” and Other [rek] Words”

  • GC

    Your blog is a MUST read for people like me. If you vist my blog, spEnglish.info, you’ll know why.
    I’m a great fan of this excellent site.

    Thank You!

  • Tarah Sweeney

    I don’t really see the difference?

  • Daniel Scocco

    Tarah, you don’t see a difference between wreak and wreck?

    You can wreck a house, but you can’t wreak it. You could wreak destruction upon it though.

    Wreck stands on its own, while wreak needs a complement.

    Maeve please bring us the light if my explanation is lacking 🙂 .

  • Maeve

    I can’t improve on Daniel’s added explanation.
    Except maybe to repeat that the two words are spelled and pronounced differently.

  • Maeve

    GC,
    Thanks for your kind words.

    I just checked out your blog. I wish I could write in French as well as you do in English.

    I was astounded to learn about the scarcity of milk in some countries. It seems to me that our papers should be carrying stories about it. It’s very disturbing.

  • Deborah

    Wreak Havoc! I worked for a newspaper editor in the early 80s who announced to all reporters and sub-editors, that he would immediately fire the first person who wrote “wreak havoc” in any news story. We had a lot of fun occasionally calling back and forth to each other, asking “what’s another way to ‘wreak havoc?'”

    This same editor warned me on my first day to never fill up space with “bright sunshine,” which he said was abbreviated “B.S.”

  • Grace

    Thanks so much for including ‘I reckon’!
    Both of my parent are from the South, but I live in the North (of America), so a lot of my friends just consider it a ‘southern’ phrase. It’s actually in the Bible, though. If you care to look. 🙂

  • Benjamin Baxter

    This post is reekless. No typo.

  • Chris O’Brien

    Is the phrase “rack and ruin” (not sure if that first word is spelled properly) closely related to “wreck”? I am not sure how to search for it. I’ve heard it spoken but have never encountered it in a book, so far as I can recall. I love this mailing list and have used the explanation of “will” vs. “shall” in my Taiwanese students’ college English writing class. Most of them had NEVER been introduced to “shall” at all in their seven or more years of English classes!
    Thanks a dozen.

  • Maeve

    Chris,
    I’m glad the article on “shall” and “will” proved of use.

    Your question about “rack and ruin” deserves an article of its own and I’ll get right onto it. Meanwhile, I’ll tell you that it is “wrack and ruin” and the word is related to “wreck.”

    Cheers

  • Tarah Sweeney

    No, I’m afraid I’m still clueless. Oy, this is frustrating. Although, I do think I’m starting to see a tiny glimmer of understanding shining though.

    Please could someone explain when to use start and when to use begin instead?

  • d e bartley

    Hey I knew a guy named reeking Havick, I think he was Polish
    No kidding.

  • Bob Stiepock

    The pertinent phrase in your analysis regarding :wreak” is “…in modern useage….”; however, Merriam-webster’s online dictionary under “Pronunciation” offers both the long “e” as in “leak,” and the short “e” as in “speck.” And you can hear both pronounced on that site. Indeed, the long “e”(reek”) is offered first, but then, after a semi-colon, it has “;also, rek.” Also, my dog-eared copy of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, has the identical entry. I’m 72 and I have certainly heard radio and tv announcers use “rek.” At least you were not smug about it.

  • Bob Stiepock

    The pertinent phrase in your analysis regarding “wreak” is “…in modern useage….”; however, Merriam-webster’s online dictionary under “Pronunciation” offers both the long “e” as in “leak,” and the short “e” as in “speck.” And you can hear both pronounced on that site. Indeed, the long “e”(reek”) is offered first, but then, after a semi-colon, it has “;also, rek.” Also, my dog-eared copy of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, has the identical entry. I’m 72 and I have certainly heard radio and tv announcers use “rek.” At least you were not smug about it.

  • AnWulf

    Speaking of reek … It also referred to incense and was a verb “to perfume with incense”:

    rēkels (n.) [reekels] also rēkel …
    (a) Incense, frankincense; ~ fat [OE recels-fĂŠt], a vessel for incense; a censer, thurible;
    (b) the smoke or aroma of incense; ~ smoke;
    (c) med. frankincense used in ointments, etc.;
    bastard ~, an inferior grade of incense;
    fresh ~, whit ~, a superior grade of incense.

    from OE:
    inrĂȘcels n. incense
    rĂȘcels (Ăź, Ăœ) m. incense, frankincense [‘rekels’; rĂȘc]
    rĂȘcelsian to perfume with incense

    related to:
    rĂȘc m. smoke [‘reek’]
    rĂȘcan I. pret. 3 sg. rĂȘhte to fumigate, expose to smoke [v. ‘reak’]
    rĂȘocan I. sv^2 intr. to emit smoke, steam, ‘reek’; = rĂȘcan
    rĂȘocende (ĂȘ) smoking, steaming [‘reeking’]
    wĂŠlrĂȘc m. deadly reek

  • Chris

    Hello,

    I’ve always wondered about the past tense of wreak. I see “wreaked” used often as the past form, but if so, what is the present tense form of “wrought”? “-wright” (as a suffix) is used to indicate a profession (shipwright, wainwright) and Webster’s does indicate it is a stand-alone word, but I have never seen it used in print as such.

    Thanks in advance for any clarification.

    Chris

  • Maeve

    Chris,
    The present tense of “wrought” is “work.” The form “wrought” is an archaic past tense form, one of those “fossil words” that Mark has written about. It survives in just a few expressions. For example, “wrought iron” is iron that has been worked into a certain form. In the old days, farmers “wrought in the fields.” A line from the King James translation of the Bible that’s quoted in many a history textbook is “What hath God wrought.” This is the first message that Samuel Morse sent over a newly-opened telegraph line in 1844. A “wright” is a worker.

  • JJ

    Oh so much to learn! At least here I found out that I had been using both wreak and wreck correctly; wreak as in inflicting [damage, chaos], and wreck as in breaking or trashing [something]. But some of the stuff that you guys mention here is new to me… like wrought meaning work. Really need to read more OE.

  • Robert Björk

    Interesting article, as a Swede i find it intriguing how much old English was to the Nordic languages. Wreak in the old meaning is VrÀka (wreacka) in modern Swedish and sort of means evict, topple with force, Rök (reuk) is smoke in modern Swedish and incense is Rökelse (reuccelsey). Reckon is similar to RÀkna which is too make mathemathical calculations, calculation. I reckon this would be a good chance, Jag rÀknar med att detta har en god chans.

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