More from Mashed Radish

Mashed Radish is off this week, enjoying some craic with family in town. I have been terribly remiss, though, in linking you to my other writing online.

Since the spring, I’ve been writing weekly on Slate about various language topics. Some recent pieces have included: How 80s Is the Slang in Stranger Things? and Branger. Debression. Oexit. Zumxit. Why Did Brexit Trigger a Brexplosion of Wordplay? Click here for much more.

I’ve also been writing for Mental Floss. You’ll get a big etymological fix on the likes of such pieces as The Origins of 19 ‘Skin’ Expressions. Click here for more.

If you’re new to the blog, you may not know that I’m also reading the complete works of William Shakespeare this year and writing about it. Check it out at Shakespeare Confidential.

And those who are familiar with this blog will know I contribute to Oxford Dictionaries and Strong Language, where I’ve had many pieces since I’ve last shared my writing there.

Mashed Radish will be back next week.

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Orlando: The name of this central Florida city, even as it mourns, now stands as a symbol of American resilience and resolve against hate and terror. And the origin of its name, if we look to its deeper etymology, only underscores its strength.

The City Beautiful, the city lore 

Orlando was first known as Jernigan, after Aaron Jernigan, a white man who settled in this Seminole territory in 1843. By 1857, the town changed its name to Orlando following the demise of its original namesake’s reputation.

In Orlando, Florida: A Brief History, James Clark relates several tales explaining why Orlando took this new name. Three are particularly popular.

First, it is said the town honors Orlando Reeves, who died in a fight against the Seminoles by Lake Eola, which sits near the city’s center. There is no record, though, of this legendary Reeves. There is, however, an Orlando Rees, who is subject of a second tale. Rees ran a sugar plantation outside the city but headed into modern-day Orlando after the Seminoles were said to have burned down his home. Lore likely folded these two tales together.

A third story looks to one of literature’s most famous Orlandos: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (In this pastoral comedy, Orlando flees into the forest from his murderous brother, whose life he later saves, and wins his true love Rosalind’s hand in marriage.) According to this account, the area reminded early resident and Shakespeare admirer, Judge James Speer, of the magical French forest in the play.

“Famous” legends, literature, and lands 

We don’t know for certain how the city Orlando got its name, but we do know how the name Orlando did. According to the Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Orlando is the Italian form of Roland. This name reaches back to another figure of legend, literature, and lore: the Frankish hero and nephew of Charlemagne, Roland, celebrated for his bravery, if rashness, on the battlefield and loyal friendship to Oliver. He is remembered in the medieval epic poem, La Chanson de Roland, considered one of the earliest and founding works of French literature.

Another Roland is remembered in the tale of Childe Rowland, who ventured to the Dark Tower to rescue his sister. Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Stephen king also famously riffed on the folk story to various lengths.

Roland is a Frankish name. Frankish was a West Germanic language once spoken by the Franks in their extensive territories in first-millennial Europe. The tribe lends its name to a surprising range of modern words, as previously discussed on this blog.

Further deriving from Old High German, the name Roland literally means “(having) a famous land.” It joins hrōd, “fame,” and land, “land” or “territory.” We’ve seen the Germanic hrōd in other names: Roger, “famous spear,” and Robert, “bright in fame.” It’s also in Roderick, “famous rule,” and Rudolph, “fame-wolf.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots suggests a Proto-Indo-European base of *kar-, “to praise loudly” or “extol.”

Whether named for an historic Orlando or Shakespeare’s Orlando, the name of the city remembers how it has survived past conflicts (complicated as some of those conflicts may have been). And the name will continue living up to its deeper roots in Roland – truly a “famous land” deserving of our extolment, especially its gay and Latin-American community, a living testament to the power of pride in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting ever witnessed on American soil.

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Flying, flap-eared pigs?

I wanted to point you to some other pieces I have around the web. You’re forewarned: Some strong language lies ahead.

A few weeks back, I had a post on the OxfordWords blog: Pigdoghog, and other etymologies from the farm.” As I note:

We’ve left the farm and have wandered into the woods to discover where some very basic and common animal words came from – fundamental words like dog and pig, which number among some of the first children learn to read, even say.

We just don’t really know where this group of everyday words comes from, which is nothing short of fascinating.

I also have two pieces up on Strong Language. The first is “When fucks fly.” In this post, I ask the big questions: “What exactly is a flying fuck? And why does this fuck fly?”

Today, I published a piece that grew out of my new project, Shakespeare Confidential. This piece, “Great Moments in Swearing: The Taming of the Shrew,” gives you, you flap-eared knave, some sweary tips:

So, if you’re looking for some choice words, take a page from Petruccio’s playbook: Add some color, er, choler. Just avoid this whole “taming” and “shrew” business.

Stay tuned for more etymology and, if you’re following Shakespeare Confidential, my post on The Taming of the Shrew.

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Introducing Shakespeare Confidential

So, I’ve started a new yearlong project. Shakespeare died in 1616. I’m going to read everything he wrote in 2016 and write about it.

I’m calling it Shakespeare Confidential. It’s going to be accessible, personal, and human, so don’t worry if Shakespeare feels Greek to you. You can find it – and follow it – at and @bardconfidensh.

I will be continuing to blog about word origins here, of course. I imagine there will be some fruitful cross-pollination, too, as I’m tracking words of interest during my reading of the Bard’s corpus. Like froward. I read The Taming of the Shrew first for Shakespeare Confidential and this curious word features quite prominently.

If you enjoy my writing here, please do follow and share my new blog.

As always, I so appreciate your readership and fellow word nerdom. It’s what motivates me. That and a particularly juicy etymology, no doubt!

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Home is where the haunt is

For word nerds, the real candy of Halloween is all the great words it gives out: werewolf, jack-o’-lantern,  samhainophobia.  But, as we so often see on this blog, sometimes it is the less unusual and more everyday word that can be the sweetest treat. Let’s have a look at just such a seasonal one: haunt. Its etymology really hits “home,” we might say.

There's no place like home.
“Haunted house.” Ink on paper. Doodle by (and happy birthday to) @andrescalo.


The word haunt has been, well, haunting the English language since the early 13th century. But for all its spectral associations today, the word originally had nothing to do with ghosts.

As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, the word’s earliest meanings refer to practicing some action habitually or frequenting a place habitually. This sense is preserved today in a noun form of haunt, as in an old haunt one used to visit often.

Now, Shakespeare has given us many spectacular ghosts, perhaps most dramatically in  Hamlet. But Shakespeare has also given us – or at least popularized – the spookier shades of haunt, as many maintain. For this usage, the OED first cites 1597’s Richard II: “Some haunted by ghosts they haue deposed.” In this sense, it is a ghost that is frequently and habitually coming back to a place.

Earlier in the century, it is worth noting, haunt was already shaping up to signify other “unseen or immaterial visitants,” as the OED hauntingly puts it, such as disease, memories, thoughts, or feelings. This the OED records in Richard III also in that very same 1597: “Your beauty which did haunt me in my sleepe: To vndertake the death of all the world.” This usage of haunt, of course, lives on today.

Following the development of its source verb, haunted first drapes on its white sheet, so to speak, as early as 1711. We eventually get to haunted houses and the ghastly lore of their former tenants. The Online Etymology Dictionary states haunted house is attested by 1733.

There’s no place like home

But haunt might actually have a deeper connection to houses. The word comes from the French hanter, whose meaning echoes haunt‘s early senses in English. According to French philologists Baumgartner and Ménard, the ghostly sense of hanter in French was spread in that language thanks to 18th-century English gothic and fantasy fiction. This suggests that the ghostly haunt is original to English, though the Online Etymology Dictionary notes this meaning may have been active in Proto-Germanic.

From here, however, the etymological trail goes cold. We do have plenty of suggestions, though. Most converge on a Germanic root that produced English’s very own home – in Old English, hām, whose form may look familiar in the derivative hamlet (but not Prince Hamlet). Scholars like Eric Partridge and Ernest Klein pointed to a Scandinavian cognate heimta, “to bring home,” specifically cattle. (To get more technical and speculative, the Proto-Germanic root is *haimaz, derived from the Proto-Indo-European*tkei-, “to settle,” “to dwell,” or “to be home.”)

Walter Skeat, however, wasn’t fully satisfied. In addition to heimtahis work cites the Breton hent, “a path,” a nasalized Latin habitāre, “to dwell,” and Latin’s ambitus, “a going about,” which he considered to be the likeliest explanation.

For etymologists, it might just be the “origin unknown” or “origin obscure” that proves most, er, haunting, of all.

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Fast Mash: On “Weird”

  • Weird comes from the Old English, wyrd, which originally meant “fate” or “destiny”
  • It is related to Old English verb weorthan (“to become”) and the suffix -ward (as in forward)
  • It is of Germanic origin, and at root is probably Proto-Indo-European *wer- (“to turn”; cf. verse)
  • Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” in Macbeth is attributed with fueling its shift from “fate” to “uncanny”

In the first act of Macbeth, as the Three Witches are a-fouling and a-fairing their prophecies, they all dance in a ring and chant:

The weird sisters hand in hand,

Posters of the sea and land,

Thus do go about, about,

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,

And thrice again to make up nine.

Peace! The charm’s wound up. (I.3.30-35)

Macbeth & Banquo meet the Weird Sisters. From the Holinshed Chronicles (see below), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I think we’ve all felt this way about sisters–or multiplication tables, for that matter–at one point or other, but these sisters are weird in more ways than one. See, weird is, well, a weird and wonderful example of how the meaning of a word can change.

It’s Getting Wyrd

Old English had wyrd, a noun that meant “fate” or “destiny.” Pronounced something like the rounded, French u this y would have made the word sound more like word than its descendant weird.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) earliest attestation of wyrd is around 725, referring to “the Fates, three goddesses supposed to determine the course of human life.” The Three Witches are also known as the Weird Sisters because they were the Fate Sisters. Shakespeare is known to have drawn from Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland for the historical Macbeth, including “the weird sisters,” although the bard no doubt made them his own, too, with his conjury.

(In the First Folio, the English major in me must note, the text presents weyward for weirdlikely riffing on wayward, which he liked to use. (I know this because Shakespeare told me. Through the years, as the OED documents, wyrd was represented as weyrd and weyard, so wayward‘s influence on weird is understandable.)

This trope of three, fate-wielding women taps into a significant archetype in Western mythology. The Greeks had the Moirai, the Romans had the Parcae, and the Norse the Norns.

These Norns were Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld. The name of the first, Urðr, also meant “fate”–literally, “that which has come (to be)”–and is cognate to the Old English wyrd. So is Verðandi; it means “that which will come (to be).” Skuld, it turns out, is related to the English “shall,” with its meaning of “that which should be.”

Ludwig Berger’s 1882 Norns beneath the Yggdrasil tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Twisting and Turning

The English wyrd shares the lexical life of the Norns, literally signifying “that which comes (to be).” And behind this notion of “coming to be” is, we think, a Proto-Indo-European root, *wer-, meaning “to turn, twist, bend.”

This twisting and turning lives on in a great number of words. According to Jordan Shipley, *wer– assumed various forms that have become, in English, everything from virgin and vermiform to verse, vertebrate, and the huge family of words featuring –vert-/-version (e.g., convert). We shouldn’t forget English’s own clan of words featuring the suffix –ward and -wards (Old English: -weard). As Eric Partridge comments on –ward, “The endings connote a turning, a being turned, in the direction denoted by the precise element.”  He lists: backward, downward, forward, homeward, inward, rearward, toward, upward, and, appropriately enough, wayward.

Why is there toward and towards? The s in the latter form is leftover over from the genitive (possessive case) ending in Old English. So, this –ward would have been -weardesTypically, the –ward words are adjectival, while the –wards adverbial, but this is not a strict distinction and one that is increasingly breaking down.

You Can’t Turn Back Now

As we saw in the above discussion of the names of the Norns, Germanic languages ended up using *wer– and its metaphor of turning for a common verb for “to become.” In Old English, it the verb was weorthan, which survives as a kind of vestige in expressions like woe worth the day–woe becomes, befalls, or betides the day.

I’d speculate that the guiding principle here is a notion of directionality, a you-can’t-turn-back-now on-the-course-ness, the inevitability and destination of -ward–all being wrapped into ideas of becoming. Any fan of The Walking Dead will be familiar the idea: “He’s turned,” viz., he’s become a zombie. Indeed, English regularly uses the “turn” and “turn into” to convey “becoming.”

 Worth, as in “worth a lot of money,” from Old English weorþ, might also come from this root *wer-, perhaps on the grounds of value as the kind of equivalency implied by “becoming.” Worship, featuring a meaning of weorþ as honorable, joins this word with the suffix –scipe, as in “friendship.” So, worship originally is a condition of being worthy, shall we say, of worship.

From Destiny to the Everyday

So, if the Weird Sisters were the Fate Sisters, this weird was originally an adjective form of weird describing someone or something that has the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, to paraphrase the OED. But, as Ernest Klein observes, “the sense of ‘uncanny’ arose from a misunderstanding of the real meaning of the adjective weird, in the term weird sisters (the Fate Sisters), applied to the Norns.”

The misunderstanding–or “folkchange,” as Shipley more aptly calls is–understandable. Given its “currency” in Macbeth (OED), the association of weird with fate and concomitant mythology weakens, as what is most salient about the weird sisters is their odd, strange, and frightening nature.

Interestingly, the OED gives other literary giants–Shelley and Keats–the citation for the shift from fateful to frightful. Shelley describes the unusual appearance of “weird clouds” in 1816 and a “weird cave,” suggestive of the supernatural, in 1817. In 1820, Keats writes of “weird syrops” to paint their oddness.

Today, weird may not evoke “destiny,” but, aside from a general adjective for “strange” or “unusual,” whether of events or persons, it lives a fulfilling life, if my ears are any measure, as a go-to  commentary that signals acknowledgement, much in the way of awesomeinteresting, or crazy in their everyday contexts

Coworker: It turns out my mom is a third cousin of the creator of the game Monopoly.

You: Huh. That’s weird.

It’s really not that weird, but that’s not the point. One idea, expressed by a word, gets likened to another. We use it in a new way; we change it. We exaggerate, we overuse, we dilute. Though far away from its original meaning of “fate,” weird is no less powerful. It’s just different, a little weird, if you will. And I love this about the word.


the four seasons, part iv (winter)

Fast Mash

  • Winter, attested in the same form in Old English around 888, comes through Proto-Germanic’s *wentruz, perhaps ultimately from Proto-Indo-European’s *wed-, *wod, or *ud-, meaning “wet,” or *wind-, meaning “white”
  • The early sense of winter, as one of the two major divisions of the year alongside summer, may have been the “rainy or wet season” or “the white season,” due to snow
  • Winter has thus been used to mark time, years, age, and the like

As Richard III famously begins:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest genius is the density of his wordplay. In these two, not-so-mere lines, he layers rich metaphors–seasonal, celestial, political, physical–as Gloucester enviously marks the ascension of his brother to the throne after civil war. Yet this winter does not merely chill us with its barren cold. It also weighs us down with its suggestion of old age and affliction.


Winter is itself an old word. Its modern form is unchanged from its Old English ancestor, winter. King Alfred the Great, among his other accomplishments–such as, oh, I don’t know, defending West Saxon against relentless Scandinavian sieges, helping secure England as a nation–translated, among other works, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from Latin into Old English. Not only did Alfred’s reign help ensure English–and not a Scandinavian tongue like Danish–was actually spoken on the British Isles, but he also helped promote English as a vital, legitimate language of literature and learning. Indeed, the OED’s earliest attestation of winter comes from that translation of Boethius around 888:

On sumera hit bið wearm, & on wintra ceald

Wintra–lest we forget, Old English was a highly inflected language. Wintra, here, is in the dative case. But the sense of the passage still speaks for itself, even over a millennium later.

Winter told time, marking, in contradistinction to summer, a major part of the year. In its older Germanic forms, as Partridge observes from his sources, winter may have meant “the rainy or wet season” or “the white season,” because, quoting a German etymologist, in the Old Germanic period, “time was measured by nights and winters.”

And at the root of winter may be the ancient words for wet and white themselves. Coming from Proto-Germanic’s *wentruzwinter may ultimately derive, though nasalized, from the Proto-Indo-European *wed-, *wod-, or *ud-, meaning “wet.” Or it may come from *wind-, meaning “white.” WaterWet? Yes, they may be related to winter. As may be otter.

The Indo-European cognates to these roots are astounding. You may recognize them in hydrogen or undulate, but I’ll save those for my upcoming series on “The Four Classic Elements” and on “The Colors.” There is much to look forward to in the new year.

Winter also recorded ages. Concerning livestock, twinter survives dialectically to refer to sheep or cattle two-years old, while thrinter refers to those into a third year. According to Weekley, aenetre, from an-wintre, once meant “one-year-old.” Of people, Weekley notes: “A young lady’s age is reckoned [figuratively] by summers, an old man’s by winters.” How apt.

Mind of Winter

From the most fundamental contrasts–day and night, wet and dry–we form our language for change. Yes, in the word winter I like to think we witness a primordial, phenomenological experience–of time, of the world, of our senses, of our own bodies. This directness, this pre-predicative perspective, to me, is that “mind of winter” Wallace Stevens urges us to take on in “The Snow Man.” Neither winters of discontent nor content, but just “juniper shagged with ice.”  That is winter made glorious indeed.

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Fast Mash

  • Bask comes from Old Norse, baðask (bathe oneself), with middle syllable lost
  • The Scandinavian word joins baða (bathe) and reflexive verbal suffix –sk (self)
  • Suffix –sk traces back to Proto-Indo-European *swe– (self) via Old Norse pronoun sik
  • In 1300s, bask meant “to wallow/bathe,” but especially in blood; evolved to refer to “in sunshine” and metaphorical sunshine

I took our kayak out this weekend. In the middle of Lake of the Isles, I stopped paddling to bask in the summer sun—and in Minneapolis’ lovely mix of city and nature. And then it hit me: bask. I knew I forgot to include something in last week’s post on self and other. It was the word bask. And its final two letters, –sk. It turns out that there’s a lot going on in the  little word.


Old Norse—the North Germanic language of the Vikings, runes, and sagas, and parent of close siblings Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish—had sik, a reflexive pronoun. A reflexive pronoun, you may be familiar, refers to its own antecedent. In English, think myself or yourself or themselves. And, ultimately, self-referential sik can claim its spot in the selfsame bloodline as self: It, too,  derives from the prolific Proto-Indo-European *swe- we studied last post.

Over time, the Old Norse sik became contracted to -sk. (Speech loves economy, nah mean?) This functioned as a reflexive suffix tacked onto the end of verbs. In bask, –sk was suffixed onto baða, or bathe, to form baðask. (Bathe and baða, kissing cousins, you can see.) And, in everyday mouths, the middle syllable got swallowed, eventually yielding bask Busk, parent of bustle, features the same suffix: “to busy oneself.” From extended contact with the Danes, violent and peaceful, English borrowed quite the array of words, including everyday words such as sky and they.

Etymologically, bask means to bathe oneself. The form of the word today disguises its compounds; the root verb and reflexive suffix have become what some call “opaque.” I recommend you treat yourself to some more disguised compounds (such as bridal or blackmail) as described by preeminent English etymologist Anatoly Liberman. Oh, he also has a killer weekly etymology blog, The Oxford Etymologist.

“Bask in the doneness”—or blood

So, somewhere in the 1300s, baðask looses its middle and enters the language as basken. Yes, it loses one sound but picks up another. The –en marks the infinitive form (to bask), and makes it grammatical in Middle English. Almost all of English’s inflections eventually fell off, making the language abnormally uninflected for an Indo-European language. At this point, basken wasn’t always so clean or sunny. It could be straight bloody. Basken frequently meant to wallow or be suffused not just in warm liquid, but in blood.

Check out these gruesome early attestations from the OED. In 1393, John Gower wrote:

The child lay bathed in her blood..And for the blode was hote and warme He basketh him about therinne.

I don’t know what is going on here. But isn’t it pleonastic—using more words than necessary—to use him after a form of bask, the word already reflexive? Maybe it is in Icelandic, but the semantic value of -sk is lost on English ears.

Later, in 1528, poet John Skelton wrote:

Basked and baththed in their wylde burblyng..blode.

Geez, this is like Macbeth walked into the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A vertiable bloodbath. I mean, blood does really get everywhere.

Speaking of Shakespeare, he is credited with the first attestation of bask‘s brighter meanings, i.e., basking in “the genial warmth” (OED) of sunlight or fire. Says the attending lord Jaques merrily in As You Like It (2.7):

A fool, a fool, I met a fool i’th’ forest, / A motley fool—a miserable world!— / As I do live by food, I met a fool,  / Who laid him down and basked in the sun, / And railed on Lady Fortune in good terms, / In good set terms, and yet a motley fool.

From here, bask starts living a more figurative life: basking in the metaphorical “‘sunshine’ of love, favour, glory,” (OED). Or, my favorite, “doneness.”

During a discussion of the writing process, a professor once shared a story about helping her son revise and edit an essay he was writing. Even after several rounds with the red pen, she said she kept suggesting changes here, rewordings there. He replied, “Mom, at some point, you have to bask in the doneness.” Yes, at some point, things are just done. And I can’t think of a better way to describe the feeling of finishing an essay or article.

“An undoubted Scandinavian immigrant”

Smitten by Old Norse’s ability to render verbs reflexive, I did some more digging—and fell down quite the delightful rabbit hole in Icelandic language and literature scholar Eiríkr Magnússon’s 1874 “On SK and SH In English Terminations” (Cambridge; Harvard).

In this, he parses the suffix -sk in Icelandic, which has remained remarkably close to Old Norse. Apparently, –sk also functioned as reciprocal suffix (hittask, to hit each other, or meet) and as a passive suffix (kallask, to be called). It could also be suffixed to adjectives, adding “individuality and intensity” (p. 280). He writes that nið means contumely” or shame”, while niðskr means “shamefully stingy.”

But, more to our purposes here, he offers his own explanation for why bask came to be associated with the sun. This is why I love the stuff of etymology:

In ancient times it was a common custom throughout Scandinavia for people to have hot-air baths at their houses. The custom the Scandinavians doubtless adopted from the Fins, who bathe in the same manner to this day. The heated bath-house was called baðstofa, bathing stove, a word which in Iceland signifies the warmest room in the house, the sitting-room, although the use of it for bathing purposes has long since been abandoned. The hot air being the element in which it was common and customary to effect bathing by a languid repose, the tendency to repeat on a hot summer’s day the habits of the bath-room brought the phraseology of one element into the other. Hence, the common phrase at baðask í sólinni. The reflexive form, baðask, I take to be the immediate source of bask brought about by the process first of dropping the dental aspirate, ð, which, phonetically speaking, is a weak and evanescent element in the word, and the contracting baask into bask. Here, I think it must be conceded, we have to deal with an undoubted Scandinavian immigrant. (pp. 281-282)

I’m guessing these hot-air baths are akin to saunas, which indeed the Nordic are famed for. But below is an image of an Icelandic baðstofa, or living/sitting/common room. I love the sleeping dog.

Gömul baðstofa (old sitting room), where much of the cottage industry of spinning wool was done. Image courtesy of Vísindavefurinn.

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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 ∫