Worked, Wrought and Overwrought
Judging by comments and emails I receive whenever I write about the verb wreak, some English speakers believe that the past tense of wreak is wrought.
That’s not the case.
Wrought is an archaic past tense form of the verb work.
Work and wreak derive from different Old English verbs: wyrcan (do, make) and wrecan (to avenge). Both work and wreak belong to a class of irregular verbs that have acquired regular -ed endings in modern English. If wreak had remained irregular, its forms would probably look like these: “wreak, wroke, (have) wroken.”
The verb work has a modern -ed ending, but the old past tense wrought survives in a few contexts and idioms.
Writing in the early 20th century, H. W. Fowler (Modern English Usage) commented on the fact that the past form of work was in a state of transition:
The decline of the form wrought is so manifest, yet so far from complete, that it is impossible to say from year to year where idiom still requires it and where it is already archaic.
In the 1965 edition, Gowers, changed “disappearance” to “decline,” perhaps because the old form continued to be used in the sense of done, made, fashioned, or brought about:
The stage show is tight and well-wrought.—1997 book about Jazz.
The metaphorical movement of coming into that understanding is beautifully wrought with the use of a large black drapery that the congregation passes beneath as four of the dancers hold the corners.—2013 opera review
To see the changes Edward Snowden wrought, just look at your smartphone—2014 headline.
The reason that many speakers associate wrought with wreak may have to do with the fact that we have two idioms with the word havoc. A storm or other disaster “wreaks havoc,” but people and institutions can “work havoc.”
The “works havoc” idiom is not as common as it was, but it is still found in recent use: