The Grammarphobia Blog

Old Hungarian Goulash?

Q: A question regarding the expression “wreak havoc.” I find much information online about the “wreak” part, but very little about “havoc.” Would you shed some light on this when you have a moment? Also, I see in an Internet dictionary that one of the roots of “wreak” is a word in “OHG.” I assume that doesn’t stand for Old Hungarian Goulash.

A: “Havoc” is one of those words that we nearly always find in tandem with another. We rarely see “flotsam” without “jetsam,” or “wrack” without “ruin,” or “hunky” without “dory,” or (these days at least) “wreak” without “havoc.”

The origins of “havoc” are a bit shadowy.

The word entered English in the 1300s with the meaning of devastation or destruction. It was adapted from an Anglo-French word, havok, which the Oxford English Dictionary says was “altered in some way” from the Old French term havot.

In the 14th century, to “cry havoc” (crier havot) to one’s armies was to signal them to pillage and rob. We don’t know how the French got the word, but the OED says it was probably of Teutonic origin.

Shakespeare used the expression in several plays, including Julius Caesar (1599), “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war”; Coriolanus (1608), “Do not cry havoc, where you should but hunt”; and King John (1596), “Cry, ‘havoc!’ kings; back to the stained field.”

“Havoc” hasn’t always been this bloody. It has also been used to mean confusion and disarray, as in the expressions “make havoc,” “work havoc,” “play havoc,” “create havoc,” and of course the familiar “wreak havoc.”

Today, the “wreak” version far outnumbers the others in a Google search.

The first published reference for “wreak havoc” in the OED comes from an Agatha Christie mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926): “Annie is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.”

Note that we “wreak” havoc; we don’t “wreck” it. To “wreak” is to inflict, to cause, to bring about. To “wreck” is to ruin or destroy or dismantle. So “wreck havoc” is a misuse caused by confusing the two terms.

Speaking of “wreak” and “wreck,” people sometimes ask me about another confusing pair, “rack” and “wrack.” Here’s how I explain them in Woe Is I:

“Are you racked with guilt, or wracked? Is tax time nerve-racking, or nerve-wracking? Are you on the brink of rack and ruin, or wrack and ruin? Most of the time, you are racked (tortured, strained, stretched, punished). Just think of the rack, the medieval instrument of torture. If you’re wracked, on the other hand, you’re destroyed—you’re wreckage on the beach of life (the words wrack and wreck are related). In sum: You are racked with guilt, you’ve had a nerve-racking time, and you’re facing wrack and ruin. You need a less stressful life!”

And by the way, I devoutly wish that OHG stood for Old Hungarian Goulash. But it’s an abbreviation for Old High German.

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