or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, December 06, 2008


This amusing picture is of a Godzilla-shaped menorah, and even if you aren't Jewish, don't you kind of want one?

It's here in this io9 piece about science-fictiony decorations for the holiday season. Unfortunately the description of it runs as follows:

Did your menorah ever crawl out of the depths of the ocean to reek havoc on an unsuspecting city? I think not. This lovely zillanorah is available in the Chrismukka book, a guide for interfaith families.

Is it mean and kind of snotty of me to suggest that even a relatively well-read twelve-year-old would probably know the difference between "wreak" and "reek"? No? How about a fourteen-year-old?

Honestly, I don't see any excuse.

Both words are Old English, but, obviously, their meanings (and less obviously their derivations) are very different. "Wreak" comes from "wrecan", "to avenge". It's from a big, sloppy family of words derived from Indo-European "werg-", "to do, to work". "Work" itself is obviously related to "werg-"; so is the "-erg-" in "energy" and "ergonomic", as well as "erg" itself, a measure of work performed, through Greek "ergon". Also from "werg-" is "organ", something which does the work of making music or keeping the body running, and various "-urge" and "-urgy" words such as "metallurgy", the working of metal, and "dramaturge", a stagecrafter in the theatre. The Queen of the Night in Mozart's Magic Flute sings, "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" ("A vengeful Hell doth boil within my heart"), and "Rache", "vengeance, vengefulness", is related to "wreak", which derived its sense of devastation and horror from various Germanic tongues: Gothic "wrikan", "to persecute", Middle Dutch "wreken", "to push, to drive", and an even earlier sense from Old English, "to punish". (The Dutch sense of "to push" or "to compel" also shows up in another English word, "urge".) One last interesting derivation which is clearly related to "urge": "orgy", which originally meant a sort of secret religious ritual in celebration of such dissipated gods as Dionysus.

"Reek", meaning "to stink", on the other hand, comes from "reken", which originally meant "to emit smoke" and later came to denote the rising of any sort of smoke, steam, or vapour. You'd think it referred to stinky old burning-refuse smoke and not carefully confected incense, but actually the sense of stinking is relatively new: although the source is an ancient Germanic verb, the malodorousness we consider inherent in the word is only about three hundred and fifty years old, and therefore antedates Shakespeare, so when in his amusing Sonnet 130, long one of my favourites, he describes "the breath that from my mistress reeks", he isn't (necessarily) saying she has viciously bad breath: he's merely saying that she emits breath and that it has some sort of odour which is not, understandably, comparable to fine perfume.


Post a Comment

<< Home