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According to OED the phrase to ‘wreak havoc’ was first used by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. 1926 A. CHRISTIE Murder of Roger Ackroyd xx. 239 ‘Annie is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.’ Above presumably is Annie carefully not wreaking havoc!

Wreaking Havoc

To cause or effect (harm, damage, etc.), esp. in phr. to wreak havoc (O.E.D.)

Old English wrecan strong verb.

Yesterday we wreaked havoc – and before explaining further I just have to say how I love the way both words, wreak and havoc, the first from Old English origins and the latter entering English via Anglo Norman contact, nestle so cosily together in this familiar expression. In a sense this cohabitation of words as seen in this phrase, encapsulates our year’s study. This is the third of a series of exercises focusing on OE and Latinate roots. (See previous posts: 1066 And All ThatOpening Up Vocabulary and Avoiding Getting Stuck in the Same Pool of Words) I want students to understand the richness of English, to be aware of how words from different layers of time meld and intermingle in PDE (Present Day English).

We worked with converting text that used words primarily from Old English roots and altered these to words from Latinate roots. We apologize to the shade of Langston Hughes for the havoc wreaking on his beautiful poem :Hold Fast to Dreams.

Read Group one’s version.. the original verse followed by their alteration :

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Latinate version, verse 1

Embrace securely to ambitions

For if visions subside

Existence is a fractured-pinioned avian creature

That cannot soar.

Or another group’s version:

Secure tenaciously to hallucinations

For if hallucinations vanish

Sentient consciousness is a fractured pinioned levitating creature

That desists to levitate.

Here is the butchered second verse:

Embrace secure to vision

For if visions expire

Existence is a deserted prairie

Precipitated with an aerial substance of ivory coloration.

Watch below a rendition of the poem ( Latinate version)

In my second humanities class we looked for the words from OE and the words of Latin origin, but rather than another ‘havocking’ on Dreams, we brought to ‘wrack and ruin’  a line from Lord of the Rings, the movie, not directly Tolkein’s text. I have recently been besieged by a number of  Grade 7 and 8 boys who can quote endlessly from this!!

‘They come with fire, they come with axes… gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning. Destroyers and usurpers, curse them.’ 

Below Liam reads the original and explains the task:

Below are some confusions with words of Latinate origin. I had assumed students understood that if a word was attested in the Middle English period, it may be of Latin roots. I had assumed that students knew that French had Latin roots.However, now after this exercise, they are beginning to see that words with Latin roots have entered the English lexicon directly or via another country and are perhaps ‘knocked’ about a bit on the journey!

Clarification of when words are first attested in English and their roots is necessary. By discussing these dates below (source: Online Etymology Dictionary) as well as looking at the diagram we have on our wall showing PIE roots and the languages that branch off this, the chronology and language branches will become clearer.

Latin: classical Latin, the Italic language of ancient Rome until about 4c.

Late Latin: the literary Latin language as spoken and written c.300-c.700.

Middle English:the English language as written and spoken c.1100-c.1500.

Modern Latin, Latin language in use since c.1500, chiefly scientific.
n. Noun

Emma and Lauren’s version:

 “They arrive armed with flame, they arrive with hatchets…corroding, consuming, fracturing, lacerating, igniting. Destroyers and usurpers, inflict damnation upon them.” 

After students made the changes, they were asked to consider the overall effect of each and which text in their view was the most effective. Listen to their versions and their reflections.

This exercise, worked through in pairs or small groups, took only 15 minutes at most- of course it could be extended but I want students to be aware that words have a history:

‘a history of encounters- profound, lucrative, violent. Yet to those who know the language intimately it has a strange power of alchemy, the capacity to transform whatever it touches.’ (Hitchings)

I want students  to sense that the words from Old English, as Hitchings eloquently notes, carry:

 ‘ a deep emotional charge, direct, suggestive of something more primal, more resonant, more tangible… The Anglo Saxon part of the English vocabulary seem to earth us. Its matter of fact quality is at odds with more academic colour of French and Latin word-stock.’ (33)

The words surviving in PDE from OE roots are of the everyday as Matteo put it. These words are the underpinning of the ‘lexical superstructure’ (Burridge: Blooming English) from words entering through contact with the French:  ‘ask’ is Old English, question’ is French; interrogate is Latin; ‘rise’ is from Old English, ‘mount’ is French, ‘ascend’ is Latin; ‘stink’ and ‘stench’ are from Old English, ‘aroma’ and ‘fragrance’ are French; ‘house’ from Old  English,mansion’ French. (Burridge). Changes were occurring before the Norman Conquest but this inevitable change accelerated with perhaps as many as 10,000 words entering the lexicon via this contact and ousting many of the OE words. So goodbye to ‘inwit ‘ hello to ‘conscience’, goodbye to ‘leeches’ , hello to ‘doctors’, ‘surgeons’. as the students are beginning to discover, the flood of new words has led to a layering of stylistic registers in PDE.

The last words (many, as the students would now recognize, of Latinate origin!) are with Henry Hitchings:

Sensitivity to the routes by which words have entered our language is important to our understanding of who we are..’(ch. 1)

You may enjoy:

Telegraph photographic essay : The Secret Life of Words

Kirkus review: The Secret Life of Words

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