What hath God wreaked?

A query on deadline prompts a quick review of some often-confused 'w' words – and some insights on how language changes.

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Sometimes an editor on deadline opts for a word that is indisputably correct, even if it's not necessarily the only or even best word, because time is short and the dictionary isn't cooperating. So it happened the other day: "Quick, what's the past tense of 'wreak,' as in 'wreak havoc'?" The question came from two colleagues who thought they remembered something other than what the dictionary seemed to be telling them.

The entry for havoc gave us no help, nor did the entry for wrought. We did get clear guidance for wreak. It's a regular verb; its past tense is "wreaked." And so "wreaked havoc" it was.

And I made note to research this after deadline.

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Why did we all have "wrought havoc" in our minds? Because it's another way to say the same thing.

The Macmillan dictionary online says this about "wrought": "a past tense and past participle of wreak. Many people consider this to be incorrect."

So wreak, a verb so specialized it hardly goes out at all except in the company of havoc ("damage or destruction"), gets two past tense forms? Hmm ...

Wrought is also an archaic past tense of work. It lives on today largely as an adjective to describe things that have been "worked" by artisans, most often "wrought iron."

Wrought also lives on in folk memory in "What hath God wrought," the message Samuel F.B. Morse sent to inaugurate the Baltimore-Washington telegraphic line in 1844. It was a 19th-century sound bite, rather like Neil Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind" line as he bounced down to the surface of the moon, lo, these many moons ago.

Those seeking extra credit will know that Morse's original is from the biblical book of Numbers: The prophet Balaam is warning the ruler, Balak, not to mess with the Israelites. And it's an exclamation of admiration, not a question.

Wreak, on the other hand, hangs out in a pretty tough neighborhood. It comes from an Old English word rooted in the idea of driving out or punishing. It's related to wreck, which originally meant "goods cast ashore after a shipwreck," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Then there's wrack, as in wrack and ruin, an idiom for "disaster."

The "r" at the beginning of these words is a liquid consonant, and liquids often feature in melodious, mellifluous words like melodious and mellifluous. But the now-silent "w" was surely once pronounced, and my audio imagination has no trouble hearing these words as they might have sounded long ago, with their growling gutturals and their hard final consonants. Their sound symbolism suggests torn metal and twisted rails.

If "wrought havoc" is correct, I figured, there should be examples of a present-tense "work havoc."

I found some, but they were from the last century. "Blizzard Works Havoc With Memorial Hall Clock; Timepiece Will Soon be Running Again Following 3-day Lay-Off," was a headline over a piece in The Harvard Crimson on March 14, 1924. A New York Times story datelined Boston, Nov. 9, 1909, read: "Mellen Opposes Publicity. Says It Works Havoc with the Affairs of Cor­porations." Railroad baron Charles S. Mellen was protesting what he saw as intrusive regulatory oversight. Some things don't change.

Our language does, though. Maybe because wreak seems more forceful than work, it's a better fit with "havoc" nowadays. But the other usage lives on, too.

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