Etymology Usage

What have we wrought?

Q: My dictionary says “wrought havoc” is an acceptable variant of “wreaked havoc.” But it adds that “wrought” is a past tense of “work,” not “wreak.” It seems to me that the only reason the “wrought” variant has come into common usage is that it sounds like the past tense of “wreak.” After all, no one says “work havoc.”

A: Actually, quite a few people say “work havoc,” though a lot more prefer “wreak havoc.”

In fact, both expressions have been around since at least the late 19th century, according to Google Timeline searches.

A Dec. 17, 1894, report by the House Committee on Banking and Currency, for example, comments on how easy it is for speculators to “work havoc in the market by withdrawing gold for shipment.”

And a Dec. 5, 1898, article in the New York Times has this headline about a fire that wrecked an insurance company’s offices in Manhattan: “Flames Wreak Havoc in the Home Life Building.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the verbs “work” and “wreak” in the two expressions mean pretty much the same thing: to cause or to effect something, to bring it about.

Published references in the OED suggest that the “work” version may have been more popular in the early days.

The dictionary has five citations for each expression, but the “work” examples begin much earlier than the “wreak” ones.

Although both expressions have a history, “wreak havoc” is much more popular today, with nearly 4.8 million hits on Google compared to somewhat more than 33,000 for “work havoc.”

As for the past tenses, “wreaked havoc” gets more than a million hits versus only 198,000 for “wrought havoc” and a mere 12,000 for “worked havoc.”

(The OED notes that many people assume “wrought” here is the past tense of “wreak,” rather than “work.”)

“Wrought” was the original past tense and past participle of “work.” As the OED explains, “worked” didn’t become established until the 15th century but is now the normal form.

However, “wrought” is still used in some “senses which denote fashioning, shaping, or decorating with the hand or an implement,” Oxford says.

As for their etymologies, “work” and “wreak” aren’t directly related, though both have origins in old Germanic languages.

By the way, we had a blog item a few years ago about the “havoc” part of “wreak havoc.”

In the earlier posting, we also discuss “wreck havoc” (a common misuse) as well as confusion over “rack” and “wrack.”

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