“Wracking” or “Racking” Your Brain?

By Maeve Maddox

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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35 Responses to ““Wracking” or “Racking” Your Brain?”

  • Maeve Maddox

    Erica, I think American usage would also use “wracked” in that context because the sense is “ruined, wrecked, destroyed.”

  • Erica

    I was reading an article on the BBC News
    website and read this:
    “The world’s newest nation has been wracked by civil war, which has seen ethnic cleansing and numerous atrocities, since 2013.”

    The spelling of the word ‘wracked’ caught my attention. I looked up the spelling and read the etymology. My question is: Do you think Brits would favor ‘wracked’ while Americans may tend to spell it ‘racked’?

  • Bill Kitsch

    “Wrack your brain” is not incorrect.

    The way it is used depicts a e.g. distortion of a frame or framework.

    A picture frame out of square is “wracked”, e.g.

    Not that it is unable to be brought back to square (90 degree corners).

    My ex wife “wracks my brain” for sure; some of the stuff she comes up with… her projection, anti-logical beliefs and viewpoints. She is so skilled at applying them so abusively too… (it is hard to catch my breath sometimes. lol)

    A poem: I know I’m sane, though she wracks my brain…

  • John Bulsterbaum

    @Paige – HAHAHAHA… “It’s vs. Its” is an issue of *style*; originally the primary distinction made between these in writing (when “it” had come into use) was the following: “Its” was the contraction (compare “yours”, “thiers”, etc.) and “it’s” wast he possessive. “It’s” is MORE consistent from a number of principles and “its” obviously fits the “yours/theirs/etc.” type pattern more well than “it’s”; later correcti-ists, pedants, a few authorities saying “why not?”, and faux-grammary ninnies, and (since) followers (like yourself) decided the reverse should be “true” and, apparently, a matter to judge whether someone has authority in the language. HAHAHAHA I take people who tend to re-reverse back to the original to gain a degree more of consistency to show a mite more intelligence than ye average critiqu-[y]ser. ;)~

    Here’s the simple deal: matters of style show no bearing on actual intelligence, competence, or authority in a language; authorities, in fact, and literate folk tend mo’ violate the “rules” than others, sense for them the guiding principle is clarity and communication as most effective, while the “rules” are for those who need safety-wheels to insure they *might* half-succeed in being clear and communicating. I half guess you think the rules are solid rather than arbitrary guidelines for those who aren’t linguists (people who know and can compare several languages) given that you think there is actually a difference between those two arbitrary badly-representative symbols of difference that are only useful so long as people observe (and remember) those [taught] “differences.”

    I note with sadness that half the crowd who talks of convention knows not the history nor spirit behind such conventions, the reasons or the proper facts: they just support because, ‘damn it, we’re on the downgrade!’ They take it for a sign when actually the “wrong” people were making-up and enforcing these conventions upon poor elementary students as “grammar” (though they’re not), largely in only the last few decades. Hint: “more fun” is NOT grammatical as opposed to “funner”, which is the older form long in use till stomped out by the same kind of “mind” that attempted to force everyone to abandon “dug” for “digged”; fights over terminal prepositions are style matter half-supported by some niche enclaves of English usage that everyone else has ignored since the controversy was even made one; “ain’t” is a word, and has been for many years: the “rule” and “clarity” supposed by “don’t use double negatives” contrasts not only the usage in every other language on the planet…but also the entire history of English (actual authorities call this one of the faux-rules of a “silver/guilded” age of English proscriptivism); the overcorrections common in many rules illustrative how awful “convention” has been MIS-taught, e.g. illustrative for many minds being “The stalker and I were spoken to” when it’s “The stalker and me”, technically, if you want proper objective-subjective division, whereas “Sheela and me walked to the store” is, in fact, *correct* given psychology, moods, and “pointer” indications inherenet in all of English history since the function is to DRAW ATTENTION to the subjects, which “me” forces more than “I”, though if that is not the intention THEN it is wrong (basically the rule against this by “grammar” teachers has always been wrong, since they’ve never been informed by a proper linguist of the distinction, and they often have sat around over-correcting themselves): hell, the silver-age went about trying to correct the King James, for heaven’s…to heaven’s horror.

  • Paige

    I am coming to the party rather late. I stumbled, or rather, Googled upon this post, while researching whether to write, “wracked my brain” or “racked my brain.”

    As I perused the responses, I noted that Peter presented himself as an authority on proper English. Yet he apparently doesn’t know the difference between its (possessive) and it’s (contraction).

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