“Reeking” vs. “Wreaking”: What’s The Difference?

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Does Godzilla wreak havoc or reek havoc? Reeking is a word that usually describes something with a bad smell. Wreaking refers to something that causes destruction or damage. So really, when it comes to Godzilla … it depends. Let’s examine the two homophones and learn why each refers to something different.

What does reek mean?

As a verb, reek means a few things. Most often, it refers to a bad smell. You can either say, “The pile of dirty laundry reeks” or “The pile of dirty laundry is reeking.” Both of these sentences describe the laundry’s bad odor. Here’s an example of reek as a noun: The reek from the dirty laundry was so strong, she could smell it from the hallway. Eew.

Reek may also mean “to emit” or “to have an air of.” This sense is usually used with negative qualities, while exude tends to be matched with positive ones. This can apply to both actual smells and abstract qualities (like emotions). For example, The bride exuded happiness while her ex-boyfriend reeked of jealousy.

Reek is an old word, appearing in English before the year 900. It stems from the Middle English reke, a noun meaning “smoke,” and reken, a verb meaning “to smoke.”

What does wreak mean?

Wreak is a verb that means “to inflict” or “to carry out.” It’s most commonly used with havoc. However, it can also be used with other words, like rage, revenge, or destruction. Someone who wreaks vengeance inflicts punishment on those who hurt them.

Wreak can be applied to anything that causes damage. A powerful storm could wreak destruction on a neighborhood. Wreak doesn’t have to refer to physical damage. For example, a friend who cancels plans, apologizes, and then cancels again might wreak havoc on your emotions.

Just like reekwreak is first recorded in English before 900. It develops from the Middle English wreken, itself from the Old English wrecan. It’s related to the Old Norse reka (“to drive, avenge”) and the Gothic wrikan (“to persecute”).

How do you use these two words?

You’ll find reek used as a noun or verb to describe something that emits something, such as a smell:

  • You reek of smoke! Where have you been?
  • We followed the reek of rotten garbage and found the filthy dog hiding behind the garage.
  • Mateo could smell the reek of the decomposing animal nearby.

But the word wreak is a verb that means “to inflict.” It’s damaging something else:

  • The townspeople have suffered a lot, and the seasonal floods continue to wreak havoc on their lives.
  • If the storm alone can wreak such destruction on the area, we should assume it is not hurricane proof.
  • The vigilantes vowed to wreak vengeance on their foes.

Both of these words can be used with strong, negative emotions, such as anger. For instance: With his red face and clenched fists, he reeked of anger. This example uses reek to describe the strong feeling coming from someone as if he smells of hatred.

Contrast that with this: He wreaked destruction on his sandcastle when his parents said they couldn’t stay any longer. In this case, wreak refers to a destructive action (like smashing a sandcastle).

Trying to decipher the difference between the two could wreak havoc on your brain, but we hope that after reading this article, that’s no longer the case!


If you often get wrecked from havoc wrought on your emotions, you might be a Cancer sign. Learn more about Cancers here, or you can find some comfort with your pet as you read up about the important distinctions between companion animals, therapy animals, and more.

Or watch more about that strange little phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face” in the video on the differences between spite and despite below.

WATCH: What's The Difference Between "Spite" And "Despite"?

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