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'Wreaked' Versus 'Wrought'

A reader wondered about the difference between "wreaked" and "wrought." Here's the answer.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #650
An amusement park where someone has wreaked or wrought havoc.

A reader named Martha wondered about the difference between “wreaked” and “wrought.” Have you wreaked havoc or wrought havoc?

What Is Havoc?

First, let’s think about “havoc.” You can wreak devastation or revenge, but most often it seems people and storms are described as wreaking havoc. What is this “havoc”? 

Originally, someone in the army would cry havoc, literally call out the word “havoc,” to give soldiers the order to start pillaging and just generally causing chaos. Havoc! It appears, for example, in Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar”: 

Caesars spirit shall, with a monarch’s voice, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

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It’s not clear—no credible source seems certain of the origin—but the word “havoc” might come from a Latin word that meant “to have or possess,” which kind of fits with the idea of soldiers running around grabbing things.

Later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “play havoc” and “make havoc” became phrases and then even later “work havoc” showed up. The phrases came to have more of a general sense of destruction and chaos, separate from a pillaging army.

This matters because while “wreaked” is the past tense of the verb “to wreak,” “wrought” is an archaic past tense of the verb “to work,” so you can see that if people were talking about “working havoc,” then they would also logically have said they “wrought havoc” when they were talking about the past. And in fact, Oxford Dictionaries says “wrought havoc” is an acceptable variant of “wreaked havoc.”

Oxford Dictionaries says 'wrought havoc' is an acceptable variant of 'wreaked havoc.'

And here’s a little more about the words “wreak” and “wrought.”

‘Wreak’ and ‘Wrought’

In Old English, “wreak” meant “to avenge,” but much like the word “havoc,” it’s gotten more tame over time. It now means something more like “to inflict or cause something,” usually damage or destruction.

As for “wrought,” besides being an archaic past tense form of “work” in the sense of meaning "to shape or to forge,” today, you’re just as likely to hear it being used as an adjective in phrases such as “wrought iron” as you are to hear it being used as a past tense verb. 

A Google ngram showing the declining use of "wrought" as a verb.

Examples of ‘Wrought’ as a Verb

  • What hath man wrought?
  • Each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor (Edgar Allan Poe).
  • "Changes Wrought by the New Spirit" (Chapter subtitle in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes)

‘Wreak Havoc’ or ‘Wreck Havoc’?

Martha limited her question to “wreaked” and “wrought,” but another common mistake is to say that someone “wrecked havoc” instead of “wreaked havoc.” The words may sound a lot alike, but you don’t “wreck” havoc. 

So remember, you can “wreak havoc” and “work havoc,” and in the past you may have “wreaked” or “wrought” havoc. Just don’t wreck it.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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