April 20, 1998
Joann Hill writes:
"Racking my brain"--I recently wrote this phrase for the first time after using it only in conversation before and I wasn't sure how to spell it. Should it be "racking" my brain or "wracking" my brain? And it made me wonder about its origin. Do you have any information about this phrase?
The spellings rack and wrack represent about nine (or seven, or sixteen--it depends who's dividing things up) different etymologically unrelated words, some of which have meanings that overlap. The spellings of these words have varied over the years, and the interrelated strands are so "exceedingly complicated" that our colleague Robert Burchfield, former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, recommends that you "spare an hour (at least) to consult a large dictionary" to understand them.
Two things make this daunting task easier for you, however: first, you can just ask me, and I'll do the digging; and second, despite the existence of varying spellings, most commentators agree in their recommendations.
The word rack in racking (one's) brain is thus spelled. That is because it derives from the rack, the medieval instrument of torture on which a victim was slowly stretched. (This stems from the familiar rack 'a framework'.) This rack was used as a verb meaning 'to torture on the rack', and hence in the transferred sense 'to torture', and then figuratively 'to stretch or strain', which is the sense in rack (one's) brain.
The expression nerve-racking also ultimately derives from this rack, and is usually thus spelled.
One word wrack--of the ones we're going to be concerned with--means 'damage or destruction', and is related to wreck and wreak. A different wrack means 'something wrecked; wreckage', or as a verb 'to wreck; ruin'. So the correct phrases are wrack and ruin (thus spelled) and storm-wracked (also thus spelled).
Most of these racks and wracks are found in both spellings, and have been found in both spellings for centuries. Thus, for example, nerve-wracking and rack and ruin are both relatively common in America, and are sometimes considered acceptable variants. Also, because of semantic overlap it is not always possible to tell which word is meant: if a business is "(w)racked" by competition, is it being tortured by competition, or is it being ruined by competition?
Since the various strands of etymology and meaning are so confusing, one can't always tell what a writer intended or which word is being used. In your own writing, you are probably best off by following the guidelines I lay out above.
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