Reeking and Wreaking
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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