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Commonly Confused:

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

Nerve-racking

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.  🙂

Happy writing!


Comments

  1. Anne Hammond Says: January 22, 2015 at 1:41 am

    Sadly either a lot of the books I’ve read lately haven’t had the benefit of an editor, or (let’s hope not) the editor is less than discerning! Examples I’ve come across in past 3 months alone include:

    Discrete bulge
    Bearing your soul
    Can I steel her away?
    prescribed for proscribed
    preceded for proceeded
    His/her interest was peaked – that’s so popular with American authors I sometimes wonder if they’re right and interest shouldn’t be piqued at all.

    Years ago someone told me she didn’t use the spellcheck because it gave several alternatives and she wouldn’t know which was the right one. Maybe that’s the answer?

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I have to admit I see a lot of these, too. On the bright side, it just gives us more opportunities for articles. And you’ve just added a few new words to my list, so thank you again!

  2. Good to know!!

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