First weâll take a look at the odd one out, so speak.Â Reek as a noun comes to us from Old English rec or reic, which meant âsmoke from burning metal.âÂ The Old English verb, recan or reocan, originally meant âto emit smoke.âÂ In some dialects, reek is still used to mean âsmoke, fog or vapor.âÂ The meanings of âan unpleasant odor or smellâ (n.) and âto smell strongly and unpleasantlyâ (v.) date from about 1710, but those definitions are the ones that most people are familiar with.
âGoodness, Buffy, what is that reek?â Joyce asked, waving her hand in front of her nose.
Buffy sighed.Â âSkunk demon.Â Whereâs the tomato juice?â
âPhew!â Xander covered his nose with a hand.Â âBuffster, I hate to tell you this, but you still reek.â
âXander!â Willow admonished him with a slap to his shoulder.Â âWhat a thing to say to a lady!â
Reeking is the present participle of reek, and is often used as an adjective.
Of course, after Buffyâs fight with the skunk demon, the cemetery was left a reeking mess.
When spoken, reek and wreak are often pronounced the same way, which leads to some confusion.Â The verb wreak derives from Old English as well, but from the word wrecan, which meant âto drive out or punish,â or âavenge.âÂ The modern definitions of wreak include âto inflict vengeance or punishment upon someoneâ and âto bring about or cause, as in to wreak havoc.â
âI will wreak my vengeance upon you, Slayer, for killing my brethren!â The skunk demonâs tail lashed.
Buffy pulled out a clothespin.Â âAt least Iâm wearing old clothes tonight,â she said, resigned.
Wreaking is, of course, the present participle of wreck, and it sounds identical to reek above.Â This leads to someone reeking havoc instead of wreaking havoc, and that is a smelly condition indeed.
âThat demonâs out there wreaking havoc,â Giles said angrily, âand youâre more concerned with the state of your clothes?â
Buffy shifted uncomfortably.Â âThe last time I fought one of those demons, it sprayed me with its scent-mucus and it was me that ended up reeking.â
Wreck is the third word in todayâs trio, and is often confused with wreak above.Â Wreck can be used as either a verb or a noun.Â The word comes from the 1300s wrec, which is Anglo-French and referred specifically to the flotsam after a shipwreck.Â The verb form of wreck, meaning âto destroy or ruinâ, dates from the 1500s.Â Most of the modern definitions follow that meaning, concerning âthe ruin or destructionâ of anything, from buildings to oneâs hopes and dreams, or âcausing the ruin or destructionâ of something, from a shipwreck to a car wreck to bringing down a building.Â It can also refer to someone who is physically or mentally broken down.
âBuffyâs a wreck,â Willow said, trying to keep her voice low.Â âShe lost Mister Pointy and her favorite pair of shoes fighting the skunk demons.â
âYou completely ruined my notes, Buffy!Â All my researchââ
Buffy interrupted Gilesâs diatribe.Â âYou try fighting skunk demons and not getting sprayed with mucus, then we can talk about what gets wrecked.â
How to remember which is which?Â Well, wreck is the only one with a C, which might make you think of a car wreck and destruction.Â For wreak, you can use the A and think of wreak havoc.Â Reek is perhaps best remembered by the double EE, and pee-ew, that reeks!Â Once youâve got those roots down, wreaking and reeking should follow easily.
Dictionary.com here, here and here
Merriam-Webster.com here, here and here
Free Dictionary here, here and here
Etymology online here, here and here