Reek - wreak

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Reek and wreak form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these.

They are homophones, both pronounced IPA: /ri:k/. Don't confuse them!

  • Reek can be a noun or a verb.
    • A reek (noun) was first a common Germanic word for 'smoke' (it is cognate with modern German Rauch). It became used for smoke and any similar emissions, such as steam, or a puff of tobacco, and then became linked to fumes such as the emissions and odours of bodies. This gave rise to the strongest current meaning 'a smell', particularly an unpleasant one, 'a stink'.
      • A homograph, 'rare after 17th century', says OED, means 'seaweed', particularly in the non-count form of the mass.
      • Another homograph, usually in the plural form, is an Irish term for 'hill' or, as in The Reeks, a range of hills - famously in Macgillicuddy's Reeks, a range in County Kerry, which forms the title of a clan chieftain of the area Macgillicuddy of the Reeks.
  • The verb 'to reek' similarly means 'to discharge smoke'; 'to emit vapour', for example in the steam from freshly spilled blood, as in "Now, whil'st your purpled hands do reeke and smoke, Fulfill your pleasure" (Shakespeare Julius Caesar (1623) III i 159); or 'to stink'.
      • For the verb too there is an archaic homograph, meaning 'to prepare a ship for sea'.
        • The substantive Reekie may be seen in the familiar local nickname for Edinburgh, Auld Reekie. This dates back to the days when the city could be distinguished from far away by the pall of smoke from its coal fires, and when its stonework was almost universally blackened by the smoke and soot.
As so often, AWE advises students of historical subjects who may come across these words in strange contexts and uses to consult a good dictionary, especially OED.
  • 'To wreak' only occurs nowadays as a verb, although a noun (meaning 'harm done by way of revenge' - see also rack - wrack) was common in Early Modern English. The current verb means, loosely, 'to cause [something harmful]', 'to inflict [damage] on', and is largely restricted to the phrases wreak havoc on (~ 'to cause considerable harm or damage to') and to wreak vengeance on (~'to inflict retaliatory harm upon'). For neither of these is the verb 'to work' nor the typing error 'wreck' an acceptable substitute. (See also AWE's page on the usage of, and distinction between, work and wreak.)
Further pages exist in AWE on the irregular verb 'to wreak'; the meaning of wrought, and current academic usage.
Don't let a typing mistake confuse either of these with reck or wreck.