Wrack and Rack
In our series on commonly confused terms, we’ve come across some very common terms, but this article focuses on a pair of terms that, while commonly confused, aren’t quite a part of everyday speech.
The verbs wrack and rack are both transitive verbs, which means they take a direct object. Both words have noun forms, but here I’m just focusing on the verb forms. From Merriam-Webster:
Wrack: transitive verb: to wreck beyond compare; utterly ruin; cause the complete destruction of.
Rack: transitive verb: to torture on the rack; to inflict pain or punishment by pulling or straining; to afflict with torture, pain, or anguish comparable to that suffered on a rack; to afflict and agitate very much with or as if with trouble, stress, anxiety, doubt, unpleasant emotion, or illness.
No matter what form it takes, the term wrack is nearly always synonymous with destruction or that which is destroyed.
Wrack and ruin
Times of wrack and misery
The wrack of a ship
And rack, while causing great pain or punishment, isn’t meant to destroy but to torture.
Rack your brain
Racked with jealousy
So, why the confusion? Wrack is so close to wreck that you’d think it’d be simple to remember: wrack is to wreck, literally. And rack comes from the noun rack—you know, that medieval device they used to string up a prisoner on and stretch him torturously. Sure, I guess the guy was probably destroyed completely after a round on the rack, but the point is rack is inflicting pain or torture—causing some kind of great suffering.
There are arguments that “wrack your brain” has been used in a figurative way so much that it’s almost accepted as correct. But if you think about the phrase, you are thinking very hard, working your brain and stretching it beyond its capacity to work… which is racking. The same can be said with nerve-racking. Something that’s nerve-racking is torturous, painful, and you feel like your last nerve is stretched past its breaking point. It’s not destroyed or ruined. Sorry, wrack supporters out there. 🙂