What a wreck!

Sometimes words have unofficial partners, joined at the hip to other words with which they are almost universally associated. On the old TV game show “Match Game,” contestants had to fill in the blank after a given clue word.  If the clue was “wreaking _______,” what word immediately comes to mind? Chances are that you said “havoc,” as “wreaking havoc” is such a common expression that we rarely hear the word “wreaking” used in any other way. The word in this instance means to cause or inflict, especially something destructive.

“Wreak” has a long history and many entries in the dictionary, most of them obsolete. It’s not a word in common usage, perhaps because of its unusual spelling and confusion with the similar word “wreck.”  What’s more confusing is that the word is pronounced “reek.” It is possible to wreak something other than havoc, such as destruction or ruin.

There is a similar but unrelated word that also has a rather exclusive partner. Here is your clue, contestant: “Wrought _______.” If you said “iron,” you’re headed for the lightning round. What exactly is wrought iron? “Wrought” is an adjective that means shaped, formed or decorated, especially from something crude. It was also famously used by Samuel Morse when he sent the first Baltimore-Washington telegraph message: “What hath God wrought?,” where it is actually an archaic past-tense form of the word “work” meant to signify “created.” Oddly enough, “wreak” and “wrought” are opposite in meaning, even though it seems they should be related.

So is that big metal ball at the end of a crane a wreaking ball or a wrecking ball? It’s a wrecking ball, I reckon, even though it wreaks destruction.

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