bodies of water (II of II)

In Part I, we discovered armpits and bosoms in our bodies…of water. In Part II, we discover enemies, mucous, rifles, and sponges in marshriverseastream, and swamp.

Fast Mash

  • Marsh comes from Old English mersc/merisc, related to root that gave Latin mare and English mere 
  • River enters into English around 1300 from French, riviere, from Latin riparia or ripa (riverbank)
  • Sea is from Old English sae, and could mean sea or lake
  • Stream flows back to Indo-European *sreu– (flow), related to extensive cognates of rheum 
  • Swamp is first attested to Captain John Smith in 1624, probably British-dialectical for sunk and possibly connected to Germanic source for sponge 


Old English has mersc and merisc, which has been reconstructed from the West Germanic *marisko. This root, in turn, probably comes from the Proto-Germanic *mari and the Indo-European *mori. Cognates abound, including English’s own mere, a wonderfully specific noun referring to anything from seaoceanlakepondpool, or cistern. You might recognize it in French’s mer or Latin’s mare, or, better yet, in marine or maritime.

From what I can tell, Skeat is alone in arguing that mere originally meant dead, as in stagnant water or the waste of the ocean. He points the reader to Sanskrit’s maru (desert) and mri (die). If you’ve studied a Romance language, you’ll think of mortalmuertemorte, etc., from the Latin morii (die). In spite of such metaphoric and phonological alignment, I think Skeat wandered too far into the marsh with this one, perhaps underestimating our linguistic ancestors’ ability to handle polysemy, ambiguity, homophony, discursive context, inter alia.

Marshal is unrelated but comes from roots meaning, essentially, horse servant.  


River comes into English around 1300, from, you guessed it, Old French, riviere. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology places the origin of riviere in Latin’s riparia, the female form of an adjective describing riverbanks or seashores. Others find it in French’s own rive (the land along the river), from Latin’s ripa, or riverbank. On this matter, Skeat redeems himself, citing the confusion likely caused by Latin’s rivus (stream) and its dimunitive, rivulus (brook).

So, ripa gives us the scientific riparian, which is rather unexciting until we consider that ripa signified rather steep banks and therefore probably derives from the Proto-Indo-European *rei-, (stratch, tear, cut off). RivenRiftRifle? Yup. They are all related.

There is also arrive, ultimately from the Latin ad- (towards) and ripa. It meant come to shore, particularly after a long journey on the sea.

And derive? How apropos. Originally, the verb indicated conducting water from a source to a channel. Thus: Latin’s de– (away from) and rivus (stream).

Then there’s my favorite: rival. Quite simply, Latin’s rivalis meant one who uses the same stream as another. Friend or foe? Although my Latin dictionary does cite a meaning of neighbor, it also heats things up with one who shares the same mistress. Man loves woman. Man loves other man’s woman. There really are no original stories.

What’s amazes me is how the Latinate river replaces Old English’s own ea. I mean, could there be a simpler sound? You’d think this would be a stubborn word. And it probably was. But, let’s face it, one word is just as good as another, within certain cultural parameters, n’est ce pas? And alas, all rivers lead even back to Rome, as even ea is Indo-European (cf. aqua).


English may have lost ea, but we kept sae in the form of sea. It’s Germanic in origin, and there is no Indo-European equivalent. It could mean sea or lake, just as mere could mean sea or lake. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some interesting observations concerning the interchangeable, and sometimes reversed, meanings of words for sea and lake. They are worth repeating here:

Germanic languages also use the general Indo-European word (represented by English mere (n.)), but have no firm distinction between “sea” and “lake,” either by size or by salt vs. fresh. This may reflect the Baltic geography where the languages are thought to have originated.

The two words are used more or less interchangeably, and exist in opposite senses (e.g. Gothic saiws “lake,” marei “sea;” but Dutch zee “sea,” meer “lake”). Cf. also Old Norse sær “sea,” but Danish sø, usually “lake” but “sea” in phrases. German See is “sea” (fem.) or “lake” (masc.).


Stream has been steady: Old English, stream (the diphthong of which probably pronounced more like quickly gliding form the in cat to the in father). It meant “course of water,” and, in spite of itself, has some deep roots. Its Proto-Germanic *straumaz is also responsible for today’s Dutch stroom and German Strom.  Follow it further to the Proto-Indo-European *sreu (flow), related to rheum, which once meant tears but now is the ickier watery mucous. Yes, rheumatoid is related.

The cognates are ridiculous:

  • Sanskrit sravati (flows), srotah (stream)
  • Avestan (ancient Iranian language of Zoroastrian scripture) thraotah- (stream/river)
  • Old Persian rauta (river)
  • Greek rheos (a flowing, stream), rhythmos (rhythm), rhytos (fluid, liquid)
  • Old Irish, sruaim (stream/river), Irish sruth (ibid.)
  • Welsh (and I dare you to try to play this in your next round of Scrabble) ffrwd (stream)
  • Old Norse straumr 
  • Old English stream
  • Old High German strom (cf. maelstrom)
  • Latvian/Lettish strauma
  • Lithuanian sraveti (trickle, ooze)
  • Old Church Slavonic struja (river), o-strovu (island)
  • Polish strumień (brook)

This ancient, pervasive Indo-European array leaves me gobsmacked. No reason to reinvent the…er, word, I guess.


In 1624, John Smith, Captain John Smith, wrote in his The generall historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles:

Some small Marshes and Swamps there are, but more profitable than hurtfull.

And here we have, thanks to the OED, the first attestation of swamp, although surely Mr. Smith brought it to Washington (area) from an English dialect. There is argument that it developed from a Germanic source meaning sponge or fungus. There is further argument, which the OED delightfully calls “radical,” that it is related to the Greek σομϕός (spongy, porous). But there is an identical dialectical form meaning sunk. Skeat gets more radical and links it to swim.

Either way, the verb, as in I’m swamped at work, is thusly derived. As must be the colorful and terribly descriptive swamp ass. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? There are many other wonderful compounds, including my favorite, swamp Yankee, a pejorative regional term for rural New Englanders. And yes, that band name is already taken. And no, I don’t think they play swamp rock.

m ∫ r ∫

bodies of water (part I of II)

Last post, ocean took us into its cosmological waters. In this two-part post, we cast our etymological line out in some other bodies of water—and reel in armpits, bosoms, crayfish soup, rheumatism, rifles, sponges, and vaults, among other sundries. Sorry, no boots or tires. Hey, we keep our lakes clean up here in the Twin Cities. 

Fast Mash

  • Bay enters English ~1400s from Old French and Late Latin, origin ultimately unknown and possibly Iberian in origin
  • Creek comes from Old Norse kriki (corner, nook)
  • Gulf originally meant bosom in Ancient Greek, from Proto-Indo European *kwelp- (to arch, vault)
  • Lake was borrowed via French from Latin lacus/lacuna (pool, ditch) but influenced by its Old English cognate lacu (stream)


As with so many words, bay‘s origin is unknown. But I love this fact. Words, for as much as I desire otherwise, seldom have Ur-meanings that conjure a magical past, a proto experience, a more primal understanding of the word. The signified’s sign is arbitrary, although we might take exception for linguistic imitation of the natural world. Nevertheless, the variation of human language is kaleidoscopically wonderful. And it keeps me busy at the Mashed Radish.

As an inlet of the seabay enters English ca. 1400, via Old French baie, from Late Latin baia. The best hypothesis is that the term is Pre-Roman and Iberian in origin (bahia?), potentially from the isolate Basque. Typically, languages have genealogies (e.g., French as daughter language of Latin, Latin as daughter language of an older Indo-European form) that linguists can map out. Not so for Basque; it stands on its own.

Baja means lower in Spanish and is unrelated. And, in spite of the learned efforts of John Thomson in his 1826 Etymons of English Words, so seem to be bow and bight, with origins in senses of bending and bosom, emphasizing curvature. This principle, of denoting geographic features as bends and bosoms, is spot on, though, just with different words. See gulf. Skeat also attempted an origin in the past participle of Latin’s badare (to gape), but this seems quite unlikely.

Incidentally, bisque (originally a crayfish soup) is said to be an altered form of Biscay—as in the Bay of—meaning low ridge or prominence in Basque Country.


A staple of any American English dialectical survey, creek, and its widespread variant pronounced as crick, took the form creke in the mid-15c., from kryk, used in place names as early as the 12c. The term seems to be from the Old Norse kriki, meaning corner or nook. The language even had handakriki, meaning armpit. The sense of bending and turning may point to an ultimately origin in crook. The French crique also seems to owe its origin to a Scandinavian term, and it probably influenced that of creek. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some nice insights on its exploratory past.

Extended to “inlet or short arm of a river” by 1570s, which probably led to use for “small stream, brook” in American English (1620s). Also used there and in Canada, Australia, New Zealand for “branch of a main river,” possibly from explorers moving up main rivers and seeing and noting mouths of tributaries without knowing they often were extensive rivers of their own. Slang phrase up the creek “in trouble,” often especially “pregnant,” first recorded 1941, perhaps originally armed forces slang for “lost while on patrol.” 


To me, gulf is a near “perfect” etymology. For many of us, it lives much of its life on a map or as a simple geographic term, taken for granted, specific yet simple, not necessarily an everyday word in use (unless you live on one) but everyday in its character, invisible by its own there-ness. But its origin displays a classic example of Grimm’s law, terrific metaphor, and surprising original and related meanings.

Gulf in its geographic sense was around in English in the 1400s, and later that century took its meaning of profound depth, inspiring engulf by the 1550s. Interestingly, engulf seems to hang around mostly in the phrase engulfed in flames. Anyways, golf meant gulf or whirlpool in Old French, taken from Late Latin colfos or colphos, itself lifted from the Greek kolpos, meaning bay or gulf.

The Greek is rooted in the Proto-Indo European *kwelp-, which denotes to arch or vault. A familiar cognate? English’s own overwhelm, evolved from hwealf and a-hwielfanWhelm exists, though archaic and poetic. Underwhelm was coined to riff on overwhelm—in 1953. That’s a fantastically recent and superb coinage, if I may say so myself.

So, kolpos meant gulf in Greek. But it didn’t always mean that. Earlier, it referred to the trough of waves, the fold in a garment, and, get this, bosom. The link is… curvaceousness. This lends a fleshy, pneumatic (and shall I say bathukolpian, or deep-bosomed) literalness to: When Aunt Ulga came in to hug me, she engulfed me in her bosom.  Latin’s sinus (yep, that kind of sinus) evolved in the same way, and might give you a whole new reason to get a little distracted the next time you drive along a sinuous road. German’s Busen can likewise mean gulf, bosom, and cleavage. 

Guess this puts a whole new spin on bodies of water.

And then we have Grimm’s Law. Jacob Grimm, one of the famed Brothers Grimm, was a renowned philologist and figure in 19th-c. Germany. He is perhaps best known as discovering the eponymous Grimm’s Law, which brought a whole new level of rigor to the pursuit of linguistics. Its influence to the field really cannot be underestimated.

The law demonstrates systematic sound shifts in Indo-European languages, illustrating genetic relationships between Indo-European languages. More specifically, a regular change between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic consonants in what is called a chain shift (props to Wikipedia for the chain):

bʰ → b → p → ɸ

dʰ → d → t → θ

gʰ → g → k → x

gʷʰ → gʷ → kʷ → xʷ

The superscript signifies aspiration (breath), the labialization (lip rounding). Father is a great example. In Latin, father is pater. Let’s follow the chain. According to the law, p becomes an f sound and t becomes a th sound. The examples are really astonishing, explaining why canine and hound are related, or gelato and cold.

Or—and please remember that I am only speculating here, as I do not pretend to be a historical linguist or phonologist/phonetician, only an armchair etymologist—kolpos and gulf. We see a straightforward change from p to f.

What about the and g? Grimm’s law should predict that the would change to (which sounds like the ch in German’s Ich). Indeed, there are a great many of irregularities; the stuff of language is never airtight. Something called Verner’s Law does explain some exceptions, although I don’t quite know if it properly applies here. So, any of my better linguistically educated or curious readers, I’d love to know your take on this. Could there be intermediary forms, a problem of historical orthography, some other natural accident of phonology?


Loch, lough, laguna, lagoon—English may call it lake, but I call it everywhere. I moved to Minneapolis about 6 months ago. I knew they called Minnesota the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but I didn’t know they really meant it.

Etymologically, in lake it seems two streams converge. In the early 12th-c., English picked up Old French’s lac or what I speculate is its Norman form, lack, referring generically to a body of water. The French evolved from the Latin, lacus (vattank, pool, reservoir, lake), related to lacuna (hole, pit, pond, pool). This latter term has its own place in English, denoting a gap or unfilled space. And the Latin leads back to the Proto-Indo European *laku-. I find it interesting that the primary sense of lacus is of a space (if not a manmade space) that can be filled with water, as opposed to of a lake as a natural geographic feature. However the Ancient Romans conceived of lakes, their word inspired the poetical lacustrine, which John Ashbery uses in his masterful poem These Lacustrine Cities.

This same root, *laku-, has its Germanic branch, giving Old English lacu for streamLeak is related. Good thing we didn’t call them the Los Angeles Leakers. I should say Minneapolis Leakers, given where the team originally called home many decades ago.

Lacu became lake (the pronounced as a short vowel or schwa) in Middle English, and variously signified stream, river gully, ditch, and marsh, and even grave and pit of hell. I suppose these latter two clarify the infernal image of the “lake of fire” in the Book of Revelations. And the original Meat Puppets’ track (and the perhaps better known Nirvana Unplugged in New York cover) of the same name. (I came of age in the ’90s, during which Nirvana’s Unplugged was its own kind of bible, and I guess I’m biased to its more indie feel. I also now appreciate what is probably just the rhyme-convenient Duluth shout-out, if one would ever call it that.)

m ∫ r ∫


Fast Mash

  • Ocean enters English via Anglo-Norman from Old French occean ca. late 12th-c.
  • Old French occean comes from Latin, ōceanus, from Ancient Greek κεανὸς keans)
  • Ōkeans referred to a great river circling the earth which fed all other rivers; geographic discoveries later narrowed it to remote waters and far boundaries of the west (Atlantic)
  • Ōkeanwas also a primeval, life-giving god, son of Uranus (Sky) and Earth (Gaia), married to Tethys, father of the Oceanids and river gods
  • Not Indo-European in origin; ultimate origin unknown 

Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Billy, Frank, Spray, a 1990s single by a be-flanneled American alternative rock group, a star-studded remake but ultimately middling 2000s heist film trilogy—all are oceans of one sort or another. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oceans cover over 70% of Earth’s surface and yet less than 5% of these saline waters have been properly explored. For as vast it is, for as essential to life on earth, for as awesome to the human imagination, ocean is a little word and one whose form has, in my opinion, changed very little over time. Of course, when it comes to language, size doesn’t matter, because even the plainest word can be a portal to surprising places, profound meanings, alternate realities. (Yes, even I had to resist the more obvious metaphors: vessel, voyage, Disney Cruise Liner, the Pequod, etc….)


Ocean has sailed a familiar etymological route in the English language: French by way of Latin and Latin by way of Ancient Greek. Middle English had occean(e) (and many other spellings, from occion to oxyan). This was borrowed in the late 12th-c via Anglo-Norman from Old French occean, related to the Spanish and Italian oceano. These Romance forms developed from Latin, ōceanus, which, with its hard c, hails from the Ancient Greek, κεανὸςkeans). In Ancient Greek, Ōkeanwas both a geographical and a mythological entity.  And, originally, it wasn’t an ocean, per se, but a great river.

I pulled my Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD) off the shelf, where it had been long lying heavily on its side, propping up my wireless router. I won the dictionary (nerd alert) in high school for a Latin site translation competition. It’s authoritative, even if it’s lived a decorative life for the past decade in my household. That’ll change, though, if words like ocean keep pointing me to the far reaches of the globe.

Here’s what the OCD has to say about our word. Don’t skip these paragraphs: there is some seriously interesting stuff here.

Concerning the geographical Oceanus:

A circumambient ocean-river, the final destination of all streams, predates Greek and Roman culture, appears in Homer and Hesiod, and was confirmed by geographical theory: the accessible land-mass could only cover a small portion of the earth’s surface. Some Homeric commentators thought that Homer had deliberately practised exokeanismos—removing the experience of Odysseus into a world beyond the domain of factuality. Phoenician contacts with the metalliferious and fertile Guadalquivr valley…took them into Atlantic waters early, and…Greeks followed soon… (OCD, 3rd ed., p. 1058)

First of all, exokeanismos. Whoa. Second, circumambient and metalliferious. Good thing I’ve already taken the GRE. So, the ocean was conceived of as a big river circling around the great mass of Earth, and it fed all the water sources flowing into the land.

Mythologically, the great, world-girding river was personified in the primeval deity, Oceanus:

Son of Uranus (Sky) and Ge (Gaia, Earth), husband of Tethys (a combination probably derived from the Babylonian creation-epic Enuma Elis) and father of the Oceanids and river-gods…: the name has no Indo-European etymology and is probably a loan-word. The Homeric Oceanus is the river encircling the whole world, which through subterranean connections issue all other rivers; its sources are in the west where the sun sets…The rise of geographical investigation in Herodotus…and others narrowed the significance of Oceanus down to the geographical term of ‘Ocean.’ (OCD, 3rd ed., p. 1058)

Out in the life-giving waters of Oceanus were believed to be terrifying monsters, far-flung peoples, and mystical islands (including the Elysian fields), as were the setting sun and stars. And with better geography, these distant terrors and mysteries were Oceanus’ domain, Poseidon coming to rule over the Mediterranean. Maybe way out there in open waters is the ultimate origin of the word.

The bull-horned, serpentine fish-tailed Okeanos in a procession (ca. 580BC, Sophilos, British Museum)

Linguistically, it is in Mediterranean—the sea between land or in the middle of the earth, Mesogeios in Greek—that we might understand Oceanus even better. As the OED observes, up to around 1650, ocean often didn’t appear by its lonesome, but as ocean sea, sea of the ocean, and, earlier yet, see occean. (The OED likens this to the more familiar concept of the so-called open sea.) This construction is modelled on the French, the OED continues: mer oceane or oceane mer, based on Latin’s mare ōceanum. Indeed, the distinction between rivers and the ocean river and seas and ocean seas was marked even by Homer, who uses όoς Ὠκεανὸῖo (rόos Okeanoio) and Ὠκεανὸς πoταμός (Okeanos potamoslike hippopotamus).

The Cosmic C

Now, the whole pronunciation of ocean is a little choppy. Greek used the letter kappa, κ (/k/), which sound Latin systematically (eventually) recorded as a c. (There is a lot more to this alphabetic and phonetic business with c, g, k, and q, of course ). As Latin evolved into the Romance languages, the [k] sound became palatalized (think: middle of roof of your mouth), pronounced more like [ts] by French peoples. In English-speaking mouths, I speculate that the “workout” of starting with a long and finishing with an might have pushed the tongue back and bunched it up to make what are called palato-alveolars, specifically the [ʃ] sound we hear in ocean (but more recognizable in, say, ship or mashed radish). Further, earlier spellings of the ocean include and and often double c‘s (I’d be curious to know if Old English’s pronunciation of double consonants had any influence). I’m no phonetician, but, with such palatalization, I think we might compare the situation to the pronunciation of the [ʃ] sound in words like mission and nation.

Why sounds change as they do is fascinating in its own right, and, in so many ways, a more proper linguistic pursuit than I can carry out here. But I can’t get over the fact that oceanfive little letters, two short syllablesevokes ancient cosmology. And I can’t help but pretend I’m standing at the shorea formidable expanse, a menacing, marvelous horizon bounding the known and unknownand not also see our distant forebears, wondering the same. This connection, threaded through one small word for one great phenomenon.

And you know how we say you can hear the ocean if you hold a seashell up to your ear? To me, etymologies can be like that, too. With ocean, I like to think I can hear just a bit of the past, an ancient god and ancient worldview, if I listen hard and close enough.

m ∫ r ∫

wreak havoc

Fast Mash

  • Havoc comes from Anglo-Norman crier havok (cry havoc)
  • Havok is from Old French havot (pillaging, plunder)
  • Was a military signal for soliders to start plundering; first attested in English in late 14th-c.
  • Wreak has been around for nearly 1300 years; early on, meant drive out and later, avenge
  • Came to mean inflict destruction around early 1800s
  • Probably ultimately related to Proto-Indo-European root, *werg- (confer work, urge, organ)

In the wake of the Boston Bombings, popular linguist Ben Zimmer, et alia, engaged thoughtful discussion of the language we use to describe tragedies. (His considerations of “Boston Strong” and usage of “surreal” are worthwhile.) I couldn’t help but think of these discussions after too many  tornadoes bulldozed their way through the Midwest these past weeks. Disasters at the hand of man are one thing,  and disasters at the whim of nature are another. But both are hard to put into words. Destruction, in so many ways, is ineffable. Yet, as Ben Zimmer and others observe, we do tend to rely on certain words when these  situations befall us.

As far as the tornadoes and other natural disasters are concerned, the phrase wreak havoc strikes me as particularly common. I googled “tornadoes wreak havoc” and turned up no shortage of news headlines featuring iterations of the phrase:

" tornadoes wreak havoc"  headlines
“tornadoes wreak havoc” headlines

So, as I do here at Mashed Radish, I can’t help but ask: What are these words wreak and havoc all about, etymologically speaking?


Aside from the phrase wreak havoc, havoc is perhaps most familiar in another, cry havoc. Take you back to your sophomore English class? I thought so. As Antony graphically soliloquizes after Caesar’s assassination in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julis Caesar:

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial. (III.1.273-278)

Havoc was quite literally “Havoc!”: a military cry that signaled soldiers to start pillaging and plundering, or, in the words of the OED, spoliation. Indeed, the OED‘s first attestation is from 1385, and it appears in The Black Book Admiralty, which compiled admiralty law:

 Item, qe nul soit si hardy de crier havok sur peine davoir la test coupe.

If any of my readers are versant in this French, I’d love your translation. Something about crying havoc and heads being chopped off.

 So, cry havoc comes pretty directly from the Anglo-Norman crier havok (same sense). Havok is an alteration of the  Old French, havot, which meant pillage or plunder

A quick history lesson might be in order here. In 1066, WIlliam II, Duke of Normandy, conquered England, starting a line of Norman Kings who ruled until 1154. (Although the whole  French-English royal lineage, holdings, ancestry, houses, and what-have-you continues to complicate matters. I was never good at the monarchy stuff.) Anglo-Norman, first a Northern French dialect and later distinct from French, was the language of power and gentry during this time in England. Boy, did it bring a hell of a lot French (and therefore Latin) words into the English vocabulary. Including crier havok.

I couldn’t find out why the Anglo-Norman and English took on the final consonant sound, [k]. The phoneme is technically called a voiceless velar stop, and, in havoc, is aspirated. (Put your hand in front of your mouth as you say the word. You can feel the your breath as you pronunce the final sound. Thus, aspirated.) It so happens that haddock (the fish) underwent the same thing, coming from the French hadot. And havoc has been variously spelled havok, havock, and havocke. Why did it end up as havoc? English orthography can be as complicated as the English monarchy. Perhaps the influence of other nouns like panic? A combination of accident and convention? Who’s to say.

So, what about this French havot? The OED, conservatively, deems its origin unknown. It might be related to the Latin habēre (have, possess), which gives us habitat and habit, among others. Does this also give us have in English? Despite appearances, we get that word from the Germanic *haben-, whose Latin cognate is actually capere. (There is a something hugely significant to historical linguistics called Grimm’s law which explains this, worthy of its own discussion in a separate post.) And that Latin capere has given English everything from capable to conceive. Its roots are in the Proto-Indo-European *kap-, which means to grasp. 

This same hypothetical root (*kap-) is also related to hawk, as in the bird of prey. Hawk is Germanic in origin, and it, too, might have been the source of havocHawk‘s earlier forms indeed resemble havochavek and hafoc, close to the Welsh hafog of today (also meaning havoc). Still yet in this mix of forms and cognates, havot could be related to the French haver, as Skeat argues. The verb means to hook up or seize and is kin to the German Haft (seizure, or detainment today).

Whatever the case may be, havoc already took on the general sense of destruction by the 15th-c. The cause became the effect, if you will. The order, the outcome. The call, the consequence.



One can make havoc. One can play havoc with. But, more often than not, one wreaks havoc—and typically upon or on something.  This little word, wreak, has changed quite a bit over time. I count 24 separate meanings of wreak in the OED dating back nearly 1300 years. Most of these are obsolete. Some were rare to begin with. And many meanings had a life that spanned nearly 1000 years. Now, wreak havoc (or harm, destruction, etc.) seems to have stuck around.

Here are some highlights from the OED:

  • To drive, press, or force out | The earliest attestation is in 725, as based on old, 8th-c. manuscript of a Latin-Anglo-Saxon Glossary edited by J.H. Hessels in 1890. You can  even see Hessels’ work online.  Here’s a screen shot of the entry of interest. Look at line 214 (Torquet, uuraec):
    "torquet, uuraec"
    “torquet, uuraec”

I am guessing torquet means “he twists, distorts, torments” in Latin, although I would think expellit or exprimit would make more sense. Again, the Latin meaning likely changed. too. Also, we have good example of why “double-U” is so called.

  • To give vent to, upon | Common mid-1500s, but here it is, first in an Old-English rendering of Genesis and next in Chaucer’s 1385 The Legend of Good Women:

Þas folc slean, cynn on ceastrum mid cwealmþrea and his torn wrecan.

He schal nat ryghtfully his yre wreke

  • To punish or harm
  • To avenge, to revenge (common between 1200-1600) | Just for some more Old English, here is this usage in a version of Beowulf. The middle phrase is readable:

Selre bið æghwæm, þæt he his freond wrece, þonne he fela murne.

  • Rarely: To bestow or spend on someone; to rescue some from woe; to gratify oneself
  • To inflict vengeance on someone (common after early 1800s)
  • To cause harm (as in wreak havoc) |  Shelley uses it in this way in 1817 in his poem Laon and Cythna:

With thee..will I seek Through their array of banded slaves to wreak Ruin upon the tyrants.

The first attestation of wreak havoc that the OED quotes is from Agatha Christie’s 1926 The Murder or Roger Ackroyd. It’s usage is metaphoric, and almost as funny as Dan Aykroyd:

Annie is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.

So, wreak comes from the Old English wrecan, which has many Germanic cognates. Historical linguists root it in the Proto-Germanic *wrekanan, in turn rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *werg- (work, do)This little guy birthed a pretty big family, from urge (Latin) and ergonomic and organ (Greek) to work (Germanic).  

Also related to wreak is wrack (originally, wrecked ship, from the Dutch;). So is wreck (originally, floatsam, from Old Norse). Today, it describes disorganized people and car crashes.

Related, too, is the fascinating wretch. This latter word meant despicable person and exile in Old English, but is akin to the German, Recke, which means knight, warrior, hero.  The knight errant, famous for his feats, but more so for his lonely wandering? That seems to be driving this fairly radical sense evolution. Now, besides the somewhat humorous and fairy tale-ish wretched, the word mostly hangs around in the lyrics to the hymn, Amazing Grace. Puts a new if subtle spin on what the lyrics are getting at, wouldn’t you say?

Effable Inversions

In light of their earlier meanings, wreak havoc displays interesting inversions when we consider that it so frequently describes natural destruction. (That and what children do to your living room.) Havoc begins as a call for men to plunder and evolves to signify the aftermath of severe weather events. Wreak, too, has much of its history as a vengeful act of man but comes to mean a violent act of nature.

Such inversions aren’t so surprising. Through language, we anthropomorphize, we metaphorize. We say our dogs are happy. We talk bodies of knowledge and fields of study. Perhaps in attributing human qualities to the natural world—and I believe we do this subconsciously in everyday language and deliberately in the language of story and art—we render just a bit more comprehensible the incomprehensible. Does wreak havoc play with images of the natural world, of some divine being, punishing man? Religion and myth might say so. Does wreak havoc try to give motive to the randomness of nature and the accident of human experience? Psychology might agree.

Whatever the case may  be, wreak havoc helps move the ineffable closer to our lips.

m ∫ r ∫