wretch, n. and adj.
Etymology: Old English wrecca , wræcca , = Old Saxon wrekkio , -eo (applied to the Magi), Old High German reccheo , reccho , etc., exile, adventurer, knight errant (Middle High German and German recke warrior, hero)
< Old Germanic *wrakja(n)- ,
< the stem wrak- , wrek- : see wreak v. The contrast in the development of the meaning in English and German is remarkable.

[Etymonline:] Old English wrecca "wretch, stranger, exile,"
from Proto-Germanic * wrakjon "pursuer; one pursued" (cognates: Old Saxon wrekkio, Old High German reckeo "a banished person, exile," German recke "renowned warrior, hero") [...]

Would someone please explain OED`s last sentence? What's remarkable?

From the above, I see that * wrakjon induced two cognates with opposing meanings (in English, the pursued; in German, the pursuer). Is this difference what is remarkable?

Instead, should the remark arise from the Proto-Germanic *wrakjon? Was this a contronym?
How can the same word mean the subject and the object (ie: "pursuer; one pursued")?

  • The opposing cognates is the remarkable part. The -jan/-jon suffix is the PIE causative suffix, which later palatalized final consonants (wreak/wretch, but also milk/milch, drink/drench, break/breach, blank/blanch, bank/bench, hang/hinge, and many more pairs. As for how they got different, it's a matter of whose side you're on. If the knights are chasing you, you're a wretch; but if you're a knight chasing a fugitive, you're wreaking justice.
    – jlawler
    Aug 1, 2015 at 22:48
  • When was that entry written? I ask because I suspect that 'remarkable' is used there in its (now somewhat archaic) sense of 'noteworthy', rather than the modern sense of 'extraordinary'. Aug 3, 2015 at 0:47
  • Recke certainly has to be compared to rect- et al, Wrack to verrecken.
    – vectory
    Feb 16, 2019 at 23:34

1 Answer 1


I think that you are right about the reason for the term "remarkable": because the English term (wretch) is pejorative, whereas German Recke refers to a figure (a warrior or hero) that is likely to be praised.

Whether this contrast is objectively remarkable -- i.e. whether such a semantic development is improbable or statistically rare -- is a different question. But, I doubt that the person who made that statement (in the dictionary entry) was trying to be objectively precise.

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