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.
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.