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Etymology 1


From Middle English wreken, from Old English wrecan, from Proto-West Germanic *wrekan, from Proto-Germanic *wrekaną, from Proto-Indo-European *wreg- (push, shove, drive, track down).[1] Cognate via Proto-Germanic with Dutch wreken, German rächen, Swedish vräka; cognate via PIE with Latin urgēre (English urge), and distantly cognate with English wreck.



wreak (third-person singular simple present wreaks, present participle wreaking, simple past wreaked or wrought or (obsolete) wroke, past participle wreaked or wrought or (obsolete) wroken)

  1. (transitive) To cause harm; to afflict; to inflict; to harm or injure; to let out harm.
    The earthquake wreaked havoc in the city.
    She wreaked her anger on his car.
    • 1960 December, “Talking of Trains: The railways and the Devon floods”, in Trains Illustrated, page 709:
      On the Saturday, October 1, the torrential rains began to wreak damage east of Exeter.
    • 2020 December 2, Philip Haigh, “A winter of discontent caused by threat of union action”, in Rail, page 62:
      Against a backdrop of economic devastation wreaked by COVID-19, from which the railway has been almost totally insulated by massive sums of public money, the RMT rail union is now calling for industrial action as a pay freeze beckons.
  2. (transitive) To chasten, or chastise/chastize, or castigate, or punish, or smite.
    The police abused their authority to wreak an innocent.
    The criminal has been wreaked by the Judge to spend a year in prison.
    • 1841, Thomas Macaulay, Warren Hastings:
      Now was the time to be avenged on his old enemy, to wreak a grudge of seventeen years.
  3. (archaic) To inflict or take vengeance on.
  4. (archaic) To take vengeance for.
  5. (intransitive) Misspelling of reek.
    • 2007, Bruce Morse, Forgive Myself[1]:
      She wreaked of liquor. She also wreaked of anger, despair and unsatisfied sexuality, all mixed together.
Usage notes

The verb wreak is generally used in the form “wreak damage or harm of some sort”, and is often used in the set phrase wreak havoc, though “wreak damage”, “wreak destruction”, and “wreak revenge” are also common.

Not to be confused with wreck, with similar meaning of destruction and similar etymological roots; common confusion in misspelling wreck havoc. Sometimes confused with wrack and rack.

It has become common to use wrought, the original past tense and participle for work, as the past tense and past participle for wreak, as in wrought havoc (i.e. worked havoc for wreaked havoc), due both to the fact that the weak form worked has edged out wrought from its former role almost entirely (except as an adjective referring usually to hand-worked metal goods), and via confusion from the wr- beginning both wreak and wrought, and probably by analogy with seek.

Derived terms

Etymology 2


From Middle English wreke, wrake, Northern Middle English variants of wreche, influenced later by Etymology 1, above. Compare Dutch wraak.



wreak (plural wreaks)

  1. (archaic, literary) Revenge; vengeance; furious passion; resentment.
    • 1593, anonymous author, The Life and Death of Iacke Straw [], Act I:
      VVhat barbarous mindes for grieuance more than needs,
      Vnnaturallie ſeeks wreake vpon their Lord,
      Their true annointed Prince, their lawfull king:
    • 1901, “The History of King Omar Ben Ennuman and His Sons Sherkan and Zoulmekan”, in John Payne, transl., The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, volume 2:
      Would that before my death I might but see my son The empery in my stead over the people hold
      And rush upon his foes and take on them his wreak, At push of sword and pike, in fury uncontrolled.
    • 1903, George Chapman, Richard Herne Shepherd, Algernon Charles Swinburne, The Works of George Chapman:
      However, no thought touch'd Minerva's mind, That any one should escape his wreak design'd.
    • 2003, John Foxe, John Cumming, Book of Martyrs and the Acts and Monuments of the Church:
      For three causes Duke William entered this land to subdue Harold. One was, for that it was to him given by King Edward his nephew. The second was, to take wreak for the cruel murder of his nephew Alfred, King Edward's brother, and of the Normans, which deed he ascribed chiefly to Harold.
  2. (archaic, literary) Punishment; retribution; payback.
    • 1885, “The Tale of the Three Apples”, in Sir Richard Burton, transl., The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, volume 1:
      Of a surety none murdered the damsel but I; take her wreak on me this moment; for, an thou do not thus, I will require it of thee before Almighty Allah.


  1. ^ Douglas Harper (2001–2024) “wreak”, in Online Etymology Dictionary.