What is the ‘wright’ in ‘playwright’?

A playwright, of course, writes plays. As wright and write are pronounced the same, it’s easy to confuse the two words – and tempting to think they are related. Perhaps we might even suppose wright is some Anglo-Saxon ancestor of write. Bedeviling as it may be, their similarity in sound and sense is a lexical coincidence. What, then, is that wright in playwright? To understand what ‘makes’ up the word, we’ll have to break it down.

Getting down to ‘work’

A wright is an archaic word for a ‘maker’ or ‘builder’, especially a skilled worker of the hands. It comes from the Old English wyrhta, whose ‘h’ had the throaty value of the ‘ch’ in the Scottish loch.

Consonants shuffled. Vowels shifted. Spelling changed. By Middle English, Wright emerged in the form we recognize today. We might etymologically think of a wright as a ‘worker’, as both work and wright – though not write – ultimately come from the same root. A near wright lookalike, wrought, is an archaic past participle of work. In an earlier English, we spoke of the work wrights had wrought (and while we typically wouldn’t today, we technically could as each element is still in use).

So, what sort of work have wrights wrought, at least as far as our lexicon is concerned? Let’s have some examples that go back to Old English. Shipwrights built ships. Tile-wrights fashioned tiles. A cartwright’s trade was – you guessed it – carts. Wainwrights made wains, or ‘wagons’. Both wain and wagon, as you may be wondering, come from the same Germanic root for the vehicle. Wagon was an early 1500s borrowing from the Dutch that supplanted the native English wain.

As these examples show, wright has largely lost work, so to speak, as a word on its own in English. It principally survives in compounds and occupational surnames. If you know any Wainwrights, then you know how their forebears earned their livelihood.

The odd jobs of wright

The OED enters over 50 wright words in its annals. The majority refer to tradespeople, or handy-wrights, with the head of the compound identifying the specific craft. In Middle English we can find plough-wright, wheel-wright, boat-wright, mill-wright, glass-wright, and timber-wright. In Early Modern English, we get house-wright, coach-wright, watch-wright, and chart-wright, for a ‘maker of navigational maps for the sea’.

Into the 1700s, we see snuffbox-wright, candle-wright, engine-wright, gin-wright (those cotton gins didn’t make or maintain themselves), and square-wright (a ‘carpenter’, ever using a measuring square). The 1800s turn up gate-wright and, perhaps later than expected, wagon-wright and wood-wright (a ‘carpenter’; as with square-wright, wood- is the tool, rather than the object, of the trade).

I’ve hyphenated these wright compounds so the particular line of work stands out more clearly, though a few of them became common enough in the language to become closed, including shipwright, millwright, wheelwright, and wainwright – even if most of us only ever encounter plying those trades at reenactments at historical centres. The main exception is the vocation that prompted this wright-wright: playwright.

Playwright, aptly attested by the OED in the writings of Ben Jonson in 1605, appears to be getting the most work of our wright words, as far as evidence from Oxford’s corpora and Google Books suggests. It’s joined by some other notable wordsmiths. Old English has psalm-wright and gospel-wright, the archives ever prizing religious writers. The English Renaissance furnished book-wright (an ‘author’ as well as a ‘bookmaker’), tale-wright, and rhyme-wright, AKA verse-wright, credited to Jonathan Swift in the 1720s as a fanciful term for ‘poet’. Stage-wright is another name for a playwright, also cited in the letters of Ben Jonson. Novel-wright, song-wright, and pen-wright make appearances in the 1700-1800s. The early 1900s yield picture-playwright, or ‘screenwriter’, with picture play a sometime term for a screenplay.

It’s not too surprising to see such a raft of writerly wrights. The act of writing is, after all, often construed as a craft, its products called a work (e.g., of fiction). The word craft, now, evokes artisanal food and drink. Wright doesn’t completely leave out this category, and its OED entrants are few but proud. In Old English, a cheese-wright made cheese. In Middle English, a bread-wright made bread. And in Early Modern English, a pudding-wright made pudding, in the ‘sausage’ sense of the word.

Updating the CV

A few other types of wrights have left their mark in the record. These are more metaphorical makers. A battle-wright is a ‘warrior’, that maker of war. A sea-wright, apparently, is a ‘sailor’, that worker of the sea surviving as a surname. A peace-wright brokers harmony from conflict. A bit more obscurely, a spae-wright issues prophecies, with spae a Scottish term for ‘predict’ or ‘foretell’ derived from an Old Norse term for the same. The brains behind an operation was occasionally called a brain-wright in the 1600s, while a wit-wright was always ready with a wisecrack or wise saying.

Why has wright been so underemployed? It’s hard to say why some words thrive and others wither, but wright has some serious competition on the job. Consider maker, worker, or simply that -er suffix that so widely denotes an occupation. For as artful as its sounds, bread-wright was up against baker. Even playwright had an older rival, playmaker, attested in the 1530s, but due to whatever accident of history or randomness of language, playwright prevailed. And its work, today, isn’t only signifying a dramatist. Beyond the appearance of wright in surnames, playwright, as the most common wright word, also is keeping the legacy of wright alive.

So, let’s consider hiring wright the next time we need a lexical hand – or are, at least, interested in a clever nonce word. Need a name for the maker of memes? Try meme-wright. Someone who’s cultivating an online following or always Snapchatting selfies? Consider a personal brand-wright. Maybe we could even re-mould some professions. Comedian? Why not joke-wright? Or, closer to home, how about someone who makes up words? That could only be a word-wright.

John Kelly November 19 2018

Educator, writer, and word nerd, John Kelly blogs about etymology at www.mashedradish.com and Shakespeare at shakespeareconfidential.com. Follow him on Twitter @mashedradish and @bardconfidensh.

Categories: Word origins
Tags: -wrightMiddle EnglishOld Englishplaywrightwhat in the word
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