I wrote recently about the way the words ‘riffle’ and ‘rifle’ have lately become interchangeable, as though they meant the same thing. I’ve just been reminded of yet another example of this kind of muddle: the words ‘wrest’ and ‘wrestle’ are frequently confused these days, perhaps because writers think they are really the same word in slightly different manifestations. They are indeed different words, but once again there are overlaps in the history of both terms that seem to justify the connection.  

Twenty years ago one could already spot the potential confusion. In September 2003 the Daily Telegraph printed this sentence: ‘He was acting in self-defence and trying to wrestle a pistol out of Mr Black’s hands’. The word needed here is ‘wrest’, which is defined in the OED as meaning ‘to twist’, ‘to pull’ or ‘to writhe’. It’s clearly related to the noun and verb ‘wrench’, with its sense of ‘to pull violently’.  In the US, as well, a ‘wrench’ is what  the British call a ‘spanner,’ with its action of twisting to tighten or release.

‘Wrestle’, on the other hand is defined by the OED as ‘to strive with strength and skill to throw a person to the ground’. The noun ‘wrestler’ carries this sense very plainly, and it’s vividly illustrated in the popular sport of wrestling. ‘Wrestle’ can also be used figuratively, as in ‘to wrestle with an idea’, and this phrase, although it describes an entirely abstract process, brings with it a clear picture of physical struggle. The two words have overlapping meanings which are present in their sound and spelling. 

With the sporting connotation of ‘wrestling’ in the forefront of people’s minds, the verb ‘to wrestle’ enjoys more active currency now than ‘wrest’ which has no very clear visual equivalent. Both terms have origins in early English, Dutch or Norse. Here’s a more recent specimen, which I take from a May 2023 issue of the London Review of Books : ‘… They made their way into the building, where they were challenged by armed guards … they wrestled the weapons from the guards and opened fire on the ambassador, who was sheltering behind Edna Peer, the consular secretary’. ‘Wrestle’ here has clearly been substituted for the correct word, ‘wrest’: relevant as it might be, the image of the assassins physically fighting with the guards is not what is meant here. I can’t help feeling that this example tends to confirm that ‘wrest’ is now very evidently being pushed out of use by the more physically descriptive ‘wrestle’. In fact, ‘wrest’ is beginning to look old-fashioned.

But the two expressions may not be as remote from one another as they have been in the recent past. The OED, again, gives a meaning of ‘wrest’ that it labels ‘obsolete’: ‘to struggle or contend, to strive or wrestle’. So perhaps I’m splitting hairs. But the historical sequence is interesting. Two quite separate expressions with their own distinct usage have been brought together, as it were, by a deep-rooted etymological connection that had become severed, but which is now making itself apparent again. Blood will out, as one might say.

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