randi (randi2204) wrote in fandom_grammar,

Commonly Confused Words: wreak vs. wreck vs. reek and wreaking vs. reeking

Today we’ve got a trio of words that sound alike; two of them even have similar meanings to add to the confusion.  We’ll also take a look at the present participle forms for a couple of them, since they also sound alike. Get ready for wreak vs. wreck vs. reek, with a side order of wreaking and reeking.


First we’ll take a look at the odd one out, so speak.  Reek as a noun comes to us from Old English rec or reic, which meant “smoke from burning metal.”  The Old English verb, recan or reocan, originally meant “to emit smoke.”  In some dialects, reek is still used to mean “smoke, fog or vapor.”  The meanings of “an unpleasant odor or smell” (n.) and “to smell strongly and unpleasantly” (v.) date from about 1710, but those definitions are the ones that most people are familiar with.

“Goodness, Buffy, what is that reek?” Joyce asked, waving her hand in front of her nose.

Buffy sighed.  “Skunk demon.  Where’s the tomato juice?”

“Phew!” Xander covered his nose with a hand.  “Buffster, I hate to tell you this, but you still reek.”

“Xander!” Willow admonished him with a slap to his shoulder.  “What a thing to say to a lady!”

Reeking is the present participle of reek, and is often used as an adjective.

Of course, after Buffy’s 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.  The verb wreak derives from Old English as well, but from the word wrecan, which meant “to drive out or punish,” or “avenge.”  The modern definitions of wreak include “to inflict vengeance or punishment upon someone” and “to bring about or cause, as in to wreak havoc.”

“I will wreak my vengeance upon you, Slayer, for killing my brethren!” The skunk demon’s tail lashed.

Buffy pulled out a clothespin.  “At least I’m wearing old clothes tonight,” she said, resigned.

Wreaking is, of course, the present participle of wreck, and it sounds identical to reek above.  This leads to someone reeking havoc instead of wreaking havoc, and that is a smelly condition indeed.

“That demon’s out there wreaking havoc,” Giles said angrily, “and you’re more concerned with the state of your clothes?”

Buffy shifted uncomfortably.  “The last time I fought one of those demons, it sprayed me with its scent-mucus and it was me that ended up reeking.”


Wreck is the third word in today’s trio, and is often confused with wreak above.  Wreck can be used as either a verb or a noun.  The word comes from the 1300s wrec, which is Anglo-French and referred specifically to the flotsam after a shipwreck.  The verb form of wreck, meaning “to destroy or ruin”, dates from the 1500s.  Most of the modern definitions follow that meaning, concerning “the ruin or destruction” of anything, from buildings to one’s hopes and dreams, or “causing the ruin or destruction” of something, from a shipwreck to a car wreck to bringing down a building.  It can also refer to someone who is physically or mentally broken down.

“Buffy’s a wreck,” Willow said, trying to keep her voice low.  “She lost Mister Pointy and her favorite pair of shoes fighting the skunk demons.”

“You completely ruined my notes, Buffy!  All my research—”

Buffy interrupted Giles’s diatribe.  “You try fighting skunk demons and not getting sprayed with mucus, then we can talk about what gets wrecked.”

How to remember which is which?  Well, wreck is the only one with a C, which might make you think of a car wreck and destruction.  For wreak, you can use the A and think of wreak havoc.  Reek is perhaps best remembered by the double EE, and pee-ew, that reeks!  Once you’ve 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

Tags: author:randi2204, errors:common errors, word choice:homophones, word choice:similar words, words:definition, words:spelling
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