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 ∫


5 thoughts on “wreak havoc

  1. Can Wreak and havoc have similar meanings? Like wreakage or car wreak. Havoc sounds more violent or disorganized. Like pandemonium. Aspirate the final /k/ sound is interesting to me because as a medical term aspirate means to breath something in or inhaling. Often referring to inhaling liquid or food into your lungs.


    1. A good example of what “aspiration” is in linguistics is to put your hand in front of your mouth when you see “bin” and contrast it to when you say “pin.” Indeed, it’s all about the breath.

      And good question: “wreak,” “wrack,” “wretch,” and “rack” all probably come from that same root, *wreg- (drive, push). There spellings and meanings got a bit messy over the centuries.

      Liked by 1 person

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