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According to the American Heritage Dictionary:

  • the past tense and past participle of the verb to wreak is wreaked, not wrought, which is an alternative past tense and past participle of work.

In the expression to wreak havoc , which means:

  • to cause a lot of trouble or damage as in: strikes have wreaked havoc on local businesses. (TFD)

wrought has been used for decades before the alternative version with wreaked appeared as shown in Ngram.

According to the Collins Dictionary:

  • wrought is sometimes used as if it were the past tense and past participle of wreak as in the hurricane wrought havoc in coastal areas. Many people think this use is incorrect.

But according to the Oxford Learner's Dictionary the usage in the past tense of wrought (an archaic past tense of work) is idiomatic:

  • wrought something (formal or literary) (used only in the past tense) caused something to happen, especially a change:

    • This century wrought major changes in our society.
    • The storm wrought havoc in the south.

Questions:

1)Isn't "wrought" in "wrought havoc" just misunderstood as the wrong past tense of "wreak"?

2) Isn't "wrought havoc", as a consequence, grammatically and idiomatically correct as "wreaked havoc" is?

in other words, what happened to "wrought and wreaked"? Why do lexicographers think that people misunderstand their usage?

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    The phrase wrought havoc is the past tense of work havoc. In 1900, the two most common phrases were "wrought havoc" and "work havoc". So it's the phrases wreak havoc and wreaked havoc that were introduced because of the misunderstanding. – Peter Shor Feb 6 '16 at 23:08
  • It should be noted that, roughly speaking, one definition of "wrought" is "bashed". "Wrought iron" is iron which has been shaped by heating and hammering. – Hot Licks Feb 7 '16 at 2:16
  • According to TakeOurWord.com (Issue 48), wrought havoc "seems to have arisen in 1978 in the Washington Post." I was surprised to read that! takeourword.com/Issue048.html – Tim Ward Feb 8 '16 at 5:47
  • @TimWard - actually "wrought havoc" (cause disaster) appears to be older in usage than "wreak havoc". books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Feb 8 '16 at 7:50
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    Wrought iron has been worked, or worked over, not necessarily with violence. Embroidery, painting, inlays, musical counterpoint etc. can all be worked. – AbuNassar Mar 2 '18 at 15:14
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+100

Here's an Ngram chart that tracks the frequency in Google Books search results of "wrought havoc" (blue line) versus "wreaked havoc" versus "worked havoc" (green line) for the period 1800–2005:

Although "worked havoc" has, since the late 1800s, been consistently less common than "wrought havoc," both show the same hill-like trajectory, rising between 1880 and and 1920, peaking between 1920 and 1940, and declining between 1940 and 2000. This shared behavior strongly suggests that people who used "wrought havoc" understood it in the same sense that they understood "worked havoc"—as meaning "to create or produce or effect."

In contrast, the sense of wreaked in the phrase "wreaked havoc" is a rather late addition to the dictionary-approved definitions of that word. Here is the entry for wreak in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

wreak vt (bef. 12c) 1 a archaic : AVENGE b : to cause the infliction of (vengeance or punishment) 2 : to give free play or course to (malevolent feeling) 3 : BRING ABOUT, CAUSE {wreak havoc}

The crucial definition 3 is rather odd in that it presents wreak as an objectively neutral synonym for "bring about" or "cause" despite (1) being posed in the company of havoc in the example usage, (2) having as its only other current meanings the inflicting of vengeance or punishment and the giving of free rein to malevolent feeling, and (3) strongly suggesting to the unschooled ear a connection to the (objectively unrelated) verb wreck.

As recently as the Fourth Collegiate (1931), wreak had only one listed definition:

wreak v. t. To execute in vengeance or passion; inflict.

The Fifth Collegiate (1936) revamps its entry for wreak, producing something akin to the Eleventh Collegiate's first two non-archaic definitions, but with no hint of the crucial third definition there:

wreak v. t. 1. To give free play or free course to (wrath); as, to wreak one's resentment on the innocent. 2. To inflict or exact (vengeance); as to wreak vengeance on an enemy.

The third definition doesn't arrive until the Seventh Collegiate (1963), and it appears in a form that still suggests something dangerous about the "bringing about" that wreaking implies:

3 : CAUSE, INFLICT

Finally, the Eighth Collegiate (1973) adopts the neutral language that all subsequent editions have retained:

3 : to bring about : CAUSE {wreak havoc}

As you can see in the Ngram chart, the period 1960–2000 is the period of steep growth in Google Books matches for "wreaked havoc." It appears that either Merriam-Webster recognized this trend early in its development or actively promoted it (or both).

In any case, I can't see how the skyrocketing usage of "wreaked havoc" in its sense of "caused or brought about havoc" in any way undermines prior and contemporaneous use of "wrought havoc." It also seems clear that, during the heyday of "wrought havoc" and "worked havoc," "wreaked havoc" was not widely used as an alternative to those formulations, which makes the idea that "wrought havoc" was somehow an erroneous rendering of "wreaked havoc" extremely implausible.


As a final note, I want to point out that the most widely used expression for "bring about havoc" during most of the period 1800–2005 was "played havoc" (the yellow line in this version of the Ngram chart):

The rise and fall of "played havoc" very nearly mirrors the corresponding up and down of "wrought havoc" and "worked havoc." The circumstantial evidence is thus very strong that "wreaked havoc" made its gains at the expense of the other three phrases tracked in this Ngram chart.

  • Very nice analysys. You appear to disagree with those you claim that wrought is misunderstood as the past tense of wreak, do you? – user66974 Feb 10 '16 at 21:15
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    Yes, I disagree with that view. Viewing the contention in the context of chronological usage of both "wrought havoc" and "wreaked havoc," I don't see how it can be made to hold up. – Sven Yargs Feb 10 '16 at 21:44
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Let's begin by clarifying some definitions. As usual etymonline.com is a helpful resource for identifying early attested usage and meaning.

Wrought is a past participle for work. It's generally archaic, since we would say "worked" in modern contexts. The old Middle English forms of "work" are still present in modern usages like:

  • "Wrought Iron" for worked iron
  • "what God has wrought" quoted from the King James version
  • "Playwright" a craftsman of plays ( Millwright, Shipwright, etc )

Wreak comes to English from a different path originating from words for "drive" and "push" (you could argue for a PIE connection), and it enters English with a sense of Avenge, Punish, & Inflict. Its modern connections are to "Wreck" & "Wrack".

So how does this impact your question?

First of all: The two can be grammatically and idiomatically correct in the same context. "The storm (wrought/wreaked) havoc" each create a meaningful sentence. Just like "the the storm is (working/wreaking) havoc" each create a meaningful sentence. Either usage conveys the meaning that destruction has happened.

So "(wrought/wreaked) havoc" are interchangeable... Well sort of... The 2 sentences do have different semantic meanings, for the simple reason that the two words have different semantic meanings.

So it's perhaps most appropriate to say that the two idioms are interchangeable. As long as you consistently use one formation ( work/working/wrought ) or the other ( wreak / wreaking / wreaked ) within a single conversation then that usage is legitimate (and can be attested to public usage throughout the 20th century).

The grammatical and logical pitfall is mixing the metaphors.

If you say today that "the storm is working havoc", then it would be wrong tomorrow to say that "it wreaked havoc".

If you say today that "the Storm is wreaking havoc", then it would be wrong tomorrow to say that "it wrought havoc".

Subquestion - "Why do they say wrought at all instead of worked?"

"Work" is an oddball in a few senses.

Consider how wrong "I have wrought all day" feels. Even in the early 1800's that wasn't accepted usage. An Improved Grammar of the English Language By Noah Webster declares that "Wrought is evidently obsolete" in 1843.

But within that same timeline wrought is frequently used in contexts like these (ngram "wrought by", "wrought upon", "finely wrought", and of course "wrought havoc" ).

So, broadly stated, wrought remains in modern usage for reflecting upon the result of effort. The results of iron working is wrought iron. The efforts of jewelers and craftsmen are finely wrought. Gold work has been wrought by a goldsmith. The results of any handiwork are hand wrought (not hand worked). ... and Devastation results when someone or something has wrought havoc.

At some point these usages will also fade out, either simply forgotten or written out of acceptability by limp-wristed grammarians... but until then cherish the battle scarred vitality of our proud old Strong Verbs.

  • Ok, but if "havoc" means "destruction", how can wreaked or wrought change the meaning? Plus why is wrought used and not worked? – user66974 Feb 10 '16 at 5:53
  • @Josh61 I have updated the answer to clarify the "change the meaning" comment. Hopefully that helps, basically what I had meant was that each word is effectively a metaphor, and as such the biggest danger is mixing the metaphors. I hope to add a few notes on "why wrought not worked", but that's depending on how early I make it home from work tonight. – H.R.Rambler Feb 10 '16 at 19:30
  • Somehow I don't understand how what I said yesterday must so constrain what I'm permitted to say today. (Would that politicians were so constrained.) Certainly if the storm was working havoc yesterday then it might be found to have wreaked havoc today. – Hot Licks Feb 10 '16 at 23:17
  • @HotLicks Certainly! You are welcome to do so. But if you see someone mixing that terminology, then the first assumption to be made is that the person is ignorant of the meaning of the two words. The next highest probability is someone who knows the difference and is intentionally trolling. I suppose I could be constrained to give this longer explanation in the answer, but it adds no value to answering the OP. Since the purport is fairly clear I think I'm permitted the dramatic license of the word "wrong". PS. if what you said yesterday is not held against you today... I want your job :-) – H.R.Rambler Feb 11 '16 at 0:15
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Let us not forget inanimate objects can be personified allowing a hurricane to have wrought in the context of creation.

However in the destructive association with havoc, "wreaked" being the more destructive term is more appropriate if the intent of the speaker is to convey the damage resulting from havoc.

The association "wrought havoc" may then be defined as the creation of destruction which is legitimate in use also should this instead be the intent of the speaker.

Although both are grammatically correct in use, due to contextual differences they are not interchangeable to convey they same thought.

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Based on personal experience, the degree of scholarly knowledge one needs to display in choosing which of several words to use in the case of "wreaked vs wrought" depends upon the setting.

In a room full of etymologists one might desire to be drawn into a technical discussion about all aspects of the previous and present use of the words.

In a simple conversation or in a news story in a setting where most who see or read the word are linguistic laypersons, it is absurd to be concerned about which is correct.

Indeed, one could wind up needing a valium or Xanax before daring to write or to speak.

  • Mike, this is better as a comment than an answer. With more reputation, you will be able to make comments. Take the tour to learn more. – Davo Aug 28 '17 at 16:14
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I would suggest that the two are interchangeable. Perhaps wrought is a misprision of wreaked, but in the context of havoc one seems as good as the other.

O'Conner and Kellerman in their Grammarphobia blog (http://grammarphobia.com) offer a fascinating discussion, including the usual Shakespearian Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.

Havoc was a 14th century Anglo Norman war cry that ordered general mayhem, indiscriminate pillaging and, naturally, slaughter. Had there been an equivalent of the Geneva Convention, to cry havoc would have been a war crime. (The dogs of war were big mastiff-like beasts, trained to kill and tear whatever came their way. Think of them as medieval WMD.

Given the nature of havoc, it's not surprising that people have wreaked, wrought, played, worked, created, or even wrecked havoc with its idiomatic rendering.

I think it works either way.

  • So, claim that wrought is used as the past form of wreaked in the 'hovoc' expression is actually a misunderstanding, is it? – user66974 Feb 7 '16 at 8:08
  • No they are not interchangeable, they are opposites. – Simon White Feb 7 '16 at 11:40
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The difference is whether you are being constructive or destructive.

“Wreaked” is destructive. Things are being broken.

“Havoc” is destruction. So you “wreak havoc.” You break something and you leave behind broken stuff.

“Wrought” is constructive. You are building things. You work iron and you create wrought iron.

1) Isn't "wrought" in "wrought havoc" just misunderstood as the wrong past tense of "wreak"?

It could be. It depends if any work was done or not. If the destruction (havoc) was made by a hurricane, that would not be the case, the havoc would be wreaked, not wrought. Work involves mental and physical effort that a hurricane is not capable of. If the destruction was the result of deliberate, mindful work, then it could be wrought havoc.

2) Isn't "wrought havoc", as a consequence, grammatically and idiomatically correct as "wreaked havoc" is?

No, they are not interchangeable. But neither is necessarily incorrect. A hurricane “wreaks havoc” — it cannot have “wrought havoc” because it has no ability to to any work. However, if you were talking about a serial killer who kills random people in a blind fit of rage, you might say he “wreaked havoc,” but if you were talking about a serial killer who was calculating and precise you might say he “wrought havoc.” He worked at it like a blacksmith making iron or an artist making art.

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    Have you checked the older usage examples from Ngram? "Wrought havoc" hab been used with the "destructive " connotation years before the "wreak" came into usage. – user66974 Feb 7 '16 at 12:21
  • What does the sentence suggested by the OLD "the storm wrought havoc in ithe south " mean in your opinion? – user66974 Feb 7 '16 at 12:54
  • Work and wrought are constructive? Really? Always? King James Bible: 1 Kings 21:20. Elijah is talking to Ahab. "I have found thee: because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord." – Peter Shor Oct 16 '17 at 15:04

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