Advertisement

Rack vs. wrack

Wrack is roughly synonymous with wreck. As a noun, it refers to destruction or wreckage. As a verb, it means to wreckIt is now mostly an archaic word, preserved mainly in a few common phrases.

Rack has many definitions, but the one that makes it easily confused with wrack is to torture. This sense comes from the use of medieval torture devices—called racks—on which victims’ bodies were painfully stretched. So, figuratively speaking, to rack something is to torture it, especially in manner that resembles stretching.

Common rack/wrack phrases

Rack [one’s] brain

Rack [one’s] brain is one common phrase in which rack in the torture-related sense is figuratively extended. To rack one’s brain is to torture it or to stretch it by thinking very hard.

To wrack one’s brain would be to wreck it. This might sort of make sense in some figurative uses, but rack is the standard spelling where the phrase means to think very hardWrack [one’s] brain is so common, though, that we have no choice but to consider it an accepted variant (some dictionaries agree with this).

Nerve-racking

In the phrasal adjective nerve-racking, rack is again used in the sense meaning to torture. Something that is nerve-racking tortures the nerves or figuratively stretches them.

Wrack, again, makes some sense, though. We can think of nerve-wracking as meaning wrecking the nerves instead of torturing the nerves, in which case the spelling is perfectly justifiable. But this doesn’t change the fact that nerve-racking is the original form, the more common one, and the one that is generally preferred in edited writing, for what that’s worth.

Wrack and ruin

The one common phrase in which wrack undoubtedly makes more sense is wrack and ruin, which is just an emphatic, somewhat archaic-sounding way of saying wreckage or ruin or, in other words, great destruction

Rack up

It’s hard to imagine a context in which wrack up would make sense. Rack up has several definitions, including (1) to accumulate, and (2) to prepare billiard balls for the start of a game.

Advertisement

Comments

  1. I can see now that I’ve have used this incorrectly for years! It was probably my mother’s fault, rest her soul, who always used “wrack” vs. “rack” with “my brain” and “nerve-wracking” in her writing. 

    • Rononthebeach says:

      No….. You have been spelling it correctly. Nerve-wracking is aceptable..have you misread the above? It may not be the preferred dictionary spelling but it is in common usage.

      • Yeah, “nerve-racking” and “nerve-wracking” are both recognized by OED, but it’s clear that “nerve-racking” is the original form. OED cites Shelley as the first usage for “nerve-racking,” whereas “nerve-wracking” doesn’t seem to appear before the twentieth century.

    • Claudzilla says:

      Same here. I always thought “rack” was the wrong choice in “rack my brain.” I stand corrected!

      • Claudzilla says:

        Though, I am gonig to give myself a pass on this, too. If wrack means wreck or destroy, one could also argue that it’s possible to wrack your brain in search of an answer, wrecking it instead of torturing it.

  2. god i feel old. i never used to see nerve racking, i would’ve laughed. it was WRONG.

  3. Thanks for that – I’ve quoted you in the comments on my blog posting about this. Very useful!

  4. Claudzilla says:

    I still think wracking one’s brain makes as much sense as racking it – one can wreck it through strenuous effort, just as easily as torture it.

  5. When you refer to “wrack and ruin”, you should take into account that the original meaning of “wrack” was a sea wreck, the remains of a sunken ship washed ashore, whereas ruin was the remains of a building or a city. Therefore, “wrack and ruin” was desolation on sea and land – total destruction.

  6. Joao Bettencourt says:

    To “wrack one’s brain” is the long-standing, and correct usage. Try the OED for correct definitions, not some random inventive soul on the internet. And read a lot of real books, to learn how to use your language.

  7. I’ve always used wrack my brain and wrack & ruin when writing. I was always “corrected” and imagine my delight when the “corrector” found that it was correct after all :)

  8. Enal Kreeny says:

    I knew all this.

  9. This may sound stupid, but I’m still confused as to whether I’d use racked or wracked in this sentence:
    …as a silent sob wracked/racked through her body.

  10. Davis Pruett says:

    Google N-Grams and Etymology Online both show this post is completely full of shite.

    Original form was “nerve-wracking” – etymology online doesn’t even have an entry for “racking”, and standard form in publishing for the last 100+ years has been “wracking.”

  11. Eric Scoles says:

    Would be nice if you cited scripture on these as original forms. All it would take is an OED reference.

  12. It’s nerve-wracking and wrack your brain.
    wrack (v.) “to ruin or wreck” (originally of ships), 1560s, from earlier intransitive sense “to be shipwrecked” (late 15c.), from wrack (n.). Often confused in this sense since 16c. with rack (v.) in the sense of “torture on the rack;” to wrack one’s brains is thus erroneous. Related: Wracked; wracking.

    rack (n. 3) “clouds driven before the wind,” c. 1300, also “rush of wind, collision, crash,” originally a northern word, possibly from Old English racu “cloud” (or an unrecorded Scandinavian cognate of it), reinforced by Old Norse rek “wreckage, jetsam,” or by influence of Old English wræc “something driven;” from Proto-Germanic *wrakaz, from PIE root *wreg- “to push, shove, drive” (see urge (v.)). Often confused with wrack (n.), especially in phrase rack and ruin (1590s). The distinction is that rack is “driven clouds;” wrack is “seaweed cast up on shore.”

    rack (n. 3) “clouds driven before the wind,” c. 1300, also “rush of wind, collision, crash,” originally a northern word, possibly from Old English racu “cloud” (or an unrecorded Scandinavian cognate of it), reinforced by Old Norse rek “wreckage, jetsam,” or by influence of Old English wræc “something driven;” from Proto-Germanic *wrakaz, from PIE root *wreg- “to push, shove, drive” (see urge (v.)). Often confused with wrack (n.), especially in phrase rack and ruin (1590s). The distinction is that rack is “driven clouds;” wrack is “seaweed cast up on shore.”

  13. This all looks pretty inconclusive. Some people are attributing this to Middle English, others to Middle Dutch…I have been stretching my brain on a rack and tossing it about nearly to ruin trying to figure out whether there’s any significant difference in regard to the usage of wrack and rack…don’t see much difference either way.

  14. Portia McCracken says:

    What about guilt-racked or guilt-wracked?

Speak Your Mind

advertisement
About Grammarist
Contact | Privacy policy | Home
© Copyright 2009-2014 Grammarist

Sign up for our mailing list