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Wreak havoc (and wreaked vs. wrought)

Havoc means widespread destruction. Wreak, a rare verb most common in British English, means to bring about. So to wreak havoc is to bring about widespread destruction. Havoc may reek, and it may cause a wreck, but reek havoc and wreck havoc are nonsensical phrases.

The past tense of wreak is wreaked, so the past tense of wreak havoc is wreaked havoc. Forget the old, oft-repeated myth that the past tense of wreak is wroughtWrought is an archaic past-tense form of work, and it serves as an adjective in its own right, but it has nothing to do with wreaking.


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Examples

Holiday blizzards wreak havoc in central United States. [BBC]

Winter can make you go into hibernation mode and crave fatty foods, which can wreak havoc on your skin. [The Utah Statesman]

Tropical Storm Isaac has wreaked havoc on the GOP convention schedule and is expected to take aim for the Gulf coast. [Wall Street Journal]

The move comes two months after a software update wreaked havoc with payments processing for 17m accounts. [Financial Times]

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Comments

  1. John Mulvihill says:

    Having become a cliche, “wreak havoc” should be banished. But not before I valiantly defend the correct pronunciation of the first word as “rek” and condemn the “reek” pronunciation as a misreading of the “ea” in the word by people who have never heard the word spoken.

    Confusion between the verb “wreak” and the noun “wreck” are understandable, because I read somewhere (and thus am convinced) they have a common root. Perhaps this is why I cringe when I hear the “reek” pronunciation but remain calm when I read “wreck havoc” because I know the writer’s heart is in the right place.

  2. The better way of dealing with havoc is to “cry havoc”, as Shakespeare does in Julius Caesar. I’ve never been clear how you can “wreak havoc”. I always assumed that this was a misspelling of “wreck havoc”, which makes perfect sense.

    “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.”

    • Reid Moore says:

      To “cry havoc” is to shout a frightful call with the purpose of inciting marshalled soldiers to advance. Not the same as causing mayhem and restriction.

  3. Dorothy Bishop says:

    Interested that you say wrought is from different root. I was taught at school that wreak has forms wreak, wreaked, wrought, parallel to a verb like break, broke, broken. The -en form can then also be used as adjectival passive (the broken cup, the wrought iron). So are there no precedents for forms such as ‘he had wrought destruction’?

    • From the OED:

      The phrase ‘wrought havoc’, as in they ‘wrought havoc’ on the countryside, is an acceptable variant of ‘wreaked havoc’. Here, wrought is an archaic past tense of work. It is not, as is sometimes assumed, a past tense of wreak.

    • Reid Moore says:

      The most common contemporary use of the word “wrought” is as a descriptor for rough worked iron, as iN ironwork (or the second syllable). “Wrought iron” was historically used as a common decorative feature in architecture, especially railings and fences, as occasionally for furniture, especially outdoor furniture, due to its rust resistance.

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