‘rack’ or ‘wrack’?

‘Rack’ or ‘Wrack’?

Sherry Beth Connot writes:

Every time I read how someone wracked their brain, I think it should be racked, and according to my dictionary it should.  Can you explain why wracked is being used this way?

The words rack and wrack have been confused with one another for a very long time. Sometimes the expression “to go to wrack and ruin” is written as “to go to rack and ruin.”

The word rack has numerous meanings, both as a noun and as a verb. As a noun it originated from a word for “framework” which was probably related to a verb meaning “to stretch out.

” The original framework was no doubt used for some innocent occupation such as stretching leather.

Later on some evil so-and-so adapted that kind of rack for the purpose of torturing human beings by stretching their limbs.

It is from the torture rack that we get the expression “to rack one’s brains.”

The word wrack, with its identical pronunciation, is related to Old English wraec “misery” and wrecan “to punish.” In the fourteenth century wrack took on the meaning “wrecked ship.” In time it came to mean “seaweed” or anything cast up upon the shore. The expression “to go to wrack and ruin” means to fall into a state of decay or destruction.

The written form “wrack one’s brains” is, therefore, incorrect.

In my view, “to go from rack to ruin” is also incorrect, but the Free Dictionary offers entries from both the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs and the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary which seem to find either spelling acceptable.

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Which is correct: "rack my brain" or "wrack my brain"?

The Oxford Dictionary Online says that the phrase could use either wrack or rack. They note that

The relationship between the forms rack and wrack is complicated. The most common noun sense of rack, ‘a framework for holding and storing things’, is always spelled rack, never wrack. In the phrase rack something up the word is also always spelled rack.

Figurative senses of the verb, deriving from the type of torture in which someone is stretched on a rack, can, however , be spelled either rack or wrack: thus racked with guilt; or wracked with guilt; rack your brains; or wrack your brains.

However, according to this entry for wrack in EtymOnline, the term should be rack:

The verb meaning “to ruin or wreck” (originally of ships) is recorded from 1560s, from earlier intrans. sense “to be shipwrecked” (late 15c.). Often confused in this sense since 16c. with rack (1) in the verb sense of “to torture on the rack;” to wrack one's brains is thus erroneous.

The PhraseFinder agrees that the phrase is rack your brains, adding:

The rack was a mediaeval torture device. The crude but, one presumes, effective racks often tore the victim's limbs from their bodies. It isn't surprising that 'rack' was adopted as a verb meaning to cause pain and anguish. Shakespeare was one of many authors who used this.

Further, this book on common English errors says it should be rack:

Rack vs. wrack

Wrack is roughly synonymous with wreck. As a noun, it refers to destruction or wreckage. As a verb, it means to wreck. It 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 hard. Wrack [one’s] brain is so common, though, that we have no choice but to consider it an accepted variant (some dictionaries agree with this).

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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.

Rack vs. Wrack

Using words that not only sound alike but also look alike may sometimes be nerve-racking or is it nerve-wracking? This is the case with the terms rack and wrack.

Their pronounciations are not only the same but their spellings are actually separated only by the extra ‘w’ at the start of wrack.

This post will help you distinguish between the two in terms of meaning and use.

The word rack may be used as a noun denoting “a framework, typically with rails, bars, hooks, or pegs, for holding or storing things.”

No Room on a Bike Rack? Not a Problem for These Smart Bikes
New York Times

Dashcam footage shows the moment a door flew off a roof rack into traffic following behind
Cornwall Live

Walmart sorry for this ‘terrible’ sign left above rack of guns for sale in store

It may also be used as a verb meaning “to cause extreme physical or mental pain to” or “subject to extreme stress.”

Racked by her bad credit history, mom wonders whether to buy home in 17-year-old son’s name
Washington Post

“Albuera has been racked by controversies since the May 2016 elections due to security.”

Combined with the preposition up, the word rack up means “to accumulate something.”

Best Ways To Rack Up Frequent Flyer Miles Without Flying

Two headteachers who have racked up 27 years of service say farewell to their schools
Wales Online

On the other hand, the term wrack may be used as a transitive verb which means “to utterly ruin.”

  • Boom on South Korean bourse fails to inspire buyers wracked by credit card debt
    Independent Online
  • “Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, has been wracked by violence since Houthi rebels and their allies seized vast tracts of territory, including the capital, Sanaa.”
  • “By comparison, Hurricane Harvey wracked the Texas coast with 130 mph winds at landfall Friday night.”
    Charlston Post Courier

Now that you’ve learned about the differences between rack and wrack,  you would be able to distinguish between the two words and use them properly in your writing.

Wrack or rack?

Q From Scott Underwood: Recently I had a discussion about rack your brains and wrack your brains.

The spelling seems to depend on whether one thinks the phrase derives from the rack, the medieval torture device, or from a variant of wreak or wreck, to destroy. I side with the former, though I realize I have no evidence.

And it seems wrack and ruin has a similar confusion. I’ve been painfully stretching my brains over this question. Help!

A These expressions cause much confusion. Some style guides, such as Garner’s Modern American Usage, argue that the correct forms are rack one’s brains and wrack and ruin. The current edition of Fowler says equally positively that, at least in British English, rack is correct in both cases.

Etymologists know that the forms of rack and wrack (and wreak and wreck) have become inextricably confused down the centuries and have identified so many historical examples of wrack one’s brains and rack and ruin that to insist on one over the other is etymologically insupportable.

Dr Robert Burchfield, editor of the current edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, comments that “nine homonymous nouns and seven homonymous verbs” exist and despairingly adds “All the complexities of this exceedingly complicated word cannot be set down here; spare an hour (at least) to consult a large dictionary, especially the OED”. I can tell you from experience that doing so can leave you even more confused.

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Let’s start by finding you the evidence that you lack for rack your brains, an idiom that has been known with wit and memory instead of brains. The earliest example known is in this poem:

Care for the world to do thy bodie right; Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies.

Care For Thy Soule, by William Byrd, in his Medius of 1583, republished in Select poetry … of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, by Edward Farr, 1845.

Rack, the verb, derives from the Middle English noun for a frame on which cloth was stretched for drying, so similar in sense to tenter. The modern noun rack retains this spelling.

A century before William Byrd was writing, the noun had enlarged to mean the torture frame and more generally something that causes physical or mental suffering. The verb appeared about the same time, initially in senses that were associated with the stretching of cloth.

By the middle of the next century it had extended to mean being racked with the pain of an illness, to twisting the meaning of words, and extorting money by outrageously increasing the amount demanded.

These historical sources might lead us to argue for rack one’s brain. However, by the seventeenth century, wrack was already being used; indeed, my non-scientific investigations suggest that it was more common than rack. Both are used today, with wrack more usual in the US and rack in Britain.

In your other expression, often spelled wrack and ruin, wrack is from a different source, Old English wrecan, to drive.

In early usage, it meant vengeance or revenge; by the fifteenth century, it had taken on the idea of damage, disaster, or severe injury caused by violence. It is linked to wreak, as in to wreak havoc, and wreck, in the ship sense.

(Wrack for seaweed is also a member of the set, as is the sense of high, fast-moving cloud, thought to be torn by the wind.)

The earliest example of wrack and ruin in the OED is dated 1659, but confusion between the spellings wrack and rack had already begun, because the form rack and ruin is known from a document of 1599 quoted in Thomas Fowler’s History of Corpus Christi College.

If you’re not totally confused by now, you surely should be. The best that I can do is to quote from another guide, which gives the standard US advice:

Probably the most sensible attitude would be to ignore the etymologies of rack and wrack (which, of course, is exactly what most people do) and regard them simply as spelling variants of one word.

If you choose to toe the line drawn by the commentators, however, you will want to write nerve-racking, rack one’s brains, storm-wracked, and for good measure wrack and ruin.

Then you will have nothing to worry about being criticized for — except, of course, for using too many clichés.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-wra1.htm

Last modified: 19 November 2011.

The Differences Between Rack and Wrack

As Jeremy Butterfield points out: “The relationship between the forms rack and wrack is complicated,” and the spellings are sometimes interchangeable (Oxford A-Z of English Usage, 2013).

Rack and Wrack as VerbsAs a verb, rack means to torture or cause great suffering, or to place (something) in or on a rack. The verb wrack means to wreck or cause the ruin of something.

Rack and Wrack as NounsAs a noun, rack means a frame, a shelf, an instrument of torture, or a state of intense anguish. The noun wrack means destruction or wreckage.

Idiomatically, we may rack the billiard balls, rack up points, and roast a rack of lamb. But when it comes to nerve-(w)racking experiences or (w)racking our brains, most writers, dictionaries, and usage guides admit to being (w)racked with uncertainty. See the (sometimes contradictory) usage notes below.

  • “One bicycle, rusted as if it had been there for years, leaned in the rack, its fenders supporting crescents of white.” (John Updike, “Flight.” The Early Stories: 1953-1975. Knopf, 2003)
  • “To delight in seeing men stabbed, poisoned, racked, or impaled is certainly the sign of a cruel temper.” (Joseph Addison, The Spectator, April 20, 1711)
  • “I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all, I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.” (Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, 1977)
  • “Penny was wracked with sorrow for his friends. His face was strained.” (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling, 1938)
  • “There is a half-filled baby bottle on the cupboard shelf. She picks it up. The baby's cry is becoming nerve-wracking.” (Paddy Chayefsky, The Goddess, 1958)
  • “But having to be present for merchandise deliveries that Eunice ordered online or on the phone was nerve-racking.” (Joseph Wambaugh, Hollywood Moon, 2009)
  • “Lud had been going to wrack and ruin for centuries.” (Stephen King, Wizard, and Glass, 1997)
  • “Rack and wrack are confused so frequently that most dictionaries now list both spellings for the verb meaning torment and the noun meaning destruction.” (Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • “In some senses, the verbs rack and wrack are synonymous, and the two words, each as either noun or verb, are nearly interchangeable at some points. The usage problems arise over which spelling to use where there seems to be a possible or a clear overlap in meaning. Most Edited English will prefer to rack your brain, wrack and ruin, storm-wracked, and pain-wracked, but other Standard written evidence, including some Edited English, will use the variant spelling for each.” (Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press, 1993)
  • “The expression (w)rack and ruin preserves the original sense of destruction. (These days rack, and ruin is the more common spelling in both British and American English, by the evidence of the BNC and CCAE.)…”As often, figurative uses of rack and wrack have enlarged their domains and made the spelling interchangeable wherever the sense of severe stress and destruction apply. Wrack seems to be gaining ground there, although still less common than rack in collocations such as nerve-racking and racking one's brains.” (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge University Press, 2004)
  • “Wrack is commonly used as a verb synonymous with the figurative senses of rack…”Probably the most sensible attitude would be to ignore the etymologies of rack and wrack (which, of course, is exactly what most people do) and regard them simply as spelling variants of one word. If you choose to toe the line drawn by the commentators, however, you will want to write nerve-racking, rack one's brains, storm-wracked, and for good measure wrack and ruin. Then you will have nothing to worry about being criticized for—except, of course, for using too many clichés.” (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster, 1994)
  • “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has a great idea here: Never use wrack, because it confuses people. Instead, when wrack means wreck, just use wreck. (But when you mean 'inflict damage,' spell it wreak. You 'wreak havoc on'; you never 'wreck havoc' because havoc is unwreckable.)”
  • “O.K., keynoters, let's rack 'em up: It's traditional to rack up your opponent with a good tongue-lashing for having led the country to wrack and ruin, and after you rack up a victory, you can wreak patronage vengeance from high atop your city on a hill.” (William Safire, Quoth the Maven: More on Language from William Safire. Random House, 1993)
  • “The noun rack applies to various types of framework; the verb rack means to arrange on a rack, to torture, trouble, or torment: He was placed on the rack. She racked her brain.”…”The noun wrack means ruin or destruction, as in wrack and ruin and wracked with pain. Also nerve-wracking.”…”The verb wrack has substantially the same meaning as the verb rack, the latter being preferred.” (The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011. Associated Press, 2015)
  1. He placed his trunk in the luggage _____ and took a seat by the window.
  2. The bridge had fallen into _____ and ruin.
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Answers to Practice Exercises: Rack and Wrack

  1. He placed his trunk in the luggage rack and took a seat by the window.
  2. The bridge had fallen into (w)rack and ruin.

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