language corner

The history of ‘wrestle’

Getting to the root of the word
October 30, 2014

The football player “wrestled” the ball away from an opponent and scored a touchdown. Shareholders “wrestled” control of a company from the CEO.

Who got dirtier: the football player or the shareholders?

Answer: the football player, because he actually did some physical work to get the football. But in reality, what both did was “wrest,” not “wrestle.”

“Wrestle” means “to struggle,” whether it’s with someone on a mat or with your conscience. “Wrest” also implies a struggle, but it specifically means “to turn or twist; esp., to pull or force away violently with a twisting motion,” or “to take or extract by force; usurp; extort; wring.” (All definitions are from Webster’s New World College Dictionary, fifth edition.)

Both words have the same root, an Old English word for “twist,” and appeared about the same time. The distinctions between the two are small, but worth preserving. To “wrest” implies a sharper, more sudden movement, exemplified by that twisting motion, which is why it’s probably what the football player did. It’s also the preferred usage when the struggle is more of a coup or rebellion than a tussle, or involves persistent effort: “wresting” power or control. “Wrestle” implies a more general physical confrontation between two people, except where your conscience is involved.

Probably because “wrestle” is a far more common term (Thanks, WWE!), we see “wrestled” more than “wrested.” But unlike dropping that “l” in “public,” which really changes the meaning, dropping the “l” in “wrestle” probably won’t much twist anyone’s words.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.