“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.


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

  • DameAlys

    Lots of blood spilled over this issue of proper English, I see.

    I read through these replies fast (admittedly), so I may have missed a previous suggestion to consult the OED for answers that are historically accurate. But in case no one mentioned it before, this is always the best way to begin, short of having had a smattering of Old English and Middle English somewhere along one’s meandering way toward attaining a thorough education. Whatever that might be.

    Seems to me people conflate historical accuracy, so far as it might be ascertained, with “correctness” in reference to the language as it is used. The two are separate issues (or questions). Sherry Beth Connot (who posed the original question) seemed to want to know something about both–and she’s perfectly reasonable to ask. Maeve’s reply seems to me to have answered nicely, even to the extent of taking a stand for historical accuracy (well done, good and faithful servant ;-), while also explaining things fairly completely (well done twice!).

    To anyone trying to sort out the usage (errors) surrounding “rack” and “wrack,” it will now be obvious that there are at least two schools–the Moral School of Correct English and the Laissez-Faire School of Ringing the Changes of English. But if you’re like me, you don’t like getting religion confused with knowledge, and that appears to be what most of the Moralists and the Laissez-Faire Folk insist on doing.

    Language change isn’t a moral issue, or it shouldn’t be (leave that to the French–they do it better, and meaner). But neither is language (nor should it be) a have-at-you free for all. Conventions are useful, in their place, and they are meaningful, and some of us would simply like to understand them! There really ought to be a school that recognizes the legitimacy of knowing how things came to be as they are, and then offers reasonable suggestions for usage, minus all the moralistic claptrap and minus, too, the anarchic celebration (both of which seem mere pointless projections of unstated assumptions and attitudes that are best kept private, for that is all they are, actually – personal, having nothing to do with the subject of how and why English has changed).

    Maeve has my vote for first head of this school–let us call it the School of Reason and English. For she showed exemplary leadership when she answered Sherry Beth as she did, and exemplary method when (following that answer) she took a reasonable stand. It may be accounted a “conservative” stand, but only by people who insist on division. Those who appreciate thoughtfulness in using English will appreciate, too, that there is a time and a place for mindfully supporting conventional usage of the language.

  • psychicBob

    Let’s face it, they’re both just idioms to mean that you can’t think of anything right now, with a little exaggeration to show that you tried really hard but really can’t remember. Nobody actually damaged or wrecked their brain. Both a metaphorical.

    The idea that one is ‘correct’ and the other is ‘incorrect’ IMO speaks more to the Englishman’s penchant for enforcement, and people who think pointing out correct usage where ambiguity exists is a valuable contribution to a conversation go straight on to my idiot list.

    So Albert, I learnt a lot in the past by writing things down. Does that mean that ‘I learned by wrote?’

  • Mr. Genius

    Hey, I have an idea you English Idiots.

    They both mean the same thing!

    The English language is one of the easiest, and least brain intensive on the planet. Yet you fools can’t get over stuff like this.

    Go get a F**king dictionary.

  • Baska

    Val, you ask “do we still want to communicate in Chaucer’s language?”

    Could I make two comments. Firstly Chaucer and his contemporaries seem to have had no trouble communicating with each other, so we should have no problem using it either (although it might need a bit of updating on computers and similar things!).

    Secondly, the reason that we have so much trouble nowdays appreciating Chaucer (and even Shakespeare) is that the language has been changed since their day. If English had been carved in stone then we would have no more difficulty reading them than reading contemporary material. And for the future: will readers in a couple of hundred years (assuming such things exist) be able to appreciate our beutifully crafted sentences?

  • Priscilla

    You rack your brain, but your nerves get wracked.

  • neil

    Originally, it was to “wrack one’s brains” – with the meaning explained above. Over time, various English speakers have altered the spelling to “rack one’s brains” (again, with the meaning explained above). My Cambridge (yes, England, not Texas) linguistics tutor once explained to me that “no native English speaker can ever make a mistake in English.” What he meant was that if an English person says “Innit?”, when in my opinion they should say “shouldn’t they?”, then that is a perfectly valuable VARIANT.
    Whether or not I feel they should be taken into a secluded place and have their brains blown out is quite another matter. Language is not, and should not be considered to be, a static process. The mere fact that extremely literate, well-educated people are arguing the pros and cons of whichever spelling, is an argument for this conclusion :
    Both are now acceptable.

    But “nite” should be spelled “night” and “thru” should be spelled “through”. Do you really think you are writing ENGLISH, you BASTARDS?!

  • Peter

    The sense conveyed by “racking ones brain” is of stretching it past its limit and is the intent of the earliest usages of the phrase. The idiom references the torture device that stretched it’s victims, which was itself named for it’s obvious resemblance in function to devices for stretching out cloth, parchment or hides. The OED gives this citation which best illustrates:

    1704 Swift Tale of Tub iv. 103 He had kept his Brain so long, and so violently upon the Rack, that at last it shook it self.

  • warrington

    gahbless you for clearing this up. I really did want to jump from wreaking to wracking, but that was just an fanboy love of of the wrrrr, more than an etymologically astute usage.

    racking it is boss.

  • Val B

    The English language is constantly changing (do we still want to communicate in Chaucer’s language, beautiful as it was then?) Wracking and racking are both acceptable in this context and it is a matter of personal choice. My personal preference is wrack but as long as the writer’s meaning is understood, what does it matter?

  • cobie

    Is it better to say “I racked my brain over this problem” or “…on this problem?”
    Also, in response to Maeve, it seems to me that Trollope’s education as a gentleman would likely make his novels good examples of educated gentlemen’s 19th c. English, which may or may not be “correct” in any given situation. Surely some 19th c. English peasants spoke with clarity and beauty which we would do well to emulate but which would not be considered correct, just as we occasionally find, in the midst of the carnage being wrought upon English nowadays, some wonderful, yet “incorrect” usage?
    Respectfully,
    Cobie

  • Maeve

    Louise,
    I’ve mellowed considerably since writing this particular post.

    Jay is correct, either wrack or rack is acceptable when torturing your brains.

    I’m in the process of reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels. Trollope (1815-1882)) was a well-regarded novelist in his time. He had the education of a gentleman, so I believe that the language of his novels is a good example of the correct English of the 19th century. He wrote “rack and ruin,” although I cannot recall having come across anyone “racking” or “wracking” his brains in any of his books.

    Nevertheless, in my opinion, you may indeed “wrack your brains.” Here is a pertinent definition from the OED of the verb wrack:

    To render useless by breaking, shattering, etc.; to injure or spoil severely; to destroy.

    Some of you might like to check out my new, barebones English site: http://www.BottomlineEnglish.com/
    Albert, I don’t think you would like it. I’m not insisting on a lot of things I once did. 🙂

  • Louise

    Sherry Beth says ” to wrack one’s brain” is incorrect, but wrack also means to ruin, so couldnt a person who wracks his brain be ruining it?

    Ex:I wracked (ruined) by brain on this problem.

  • Dave

    “This is only a problem if you are a semi-literate idiot.”

    Harsh, but true.

  • Jay

    Both wrack and rack are correct in the “one’s brains” phrase:

    USAGE 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. The 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. In addition, the phrase : rack and ruin can also be spelled : wrack and ruin .

  • Isa

    “Sounds like it’s related to the wrap/rap problem, as in wrapping things up or rapping things up. Would love to see a post addressing these 2 words as well.”

    This is only a problem if you are a semi-literate idiot. One wraps things up. End of story. No question and no debate whatsoever. There is no such term as ‘rapping things up.’ Look up the verb ‘to wrap.’

  • Maeve

    Finkler and Hossain
    ” I was wondering about this same sentence in the first page of ‘The finkler question’…

    This phrase is from a complicated context.

    The narrator is thinking of how everything in his life is a disaster. Seeing a woman, he imagines everything that will come in the future, ending in the usual disaster. In his imagination, as he looks at the woman walking past, he has imagined a beautiful house in which they live,

    …the bed sheets billowing like clouds, the wisp of aromatic smoke winding from the chimney — only for every wrack of it — its lattice of crimson roof tiles, its gables and dormer windows, his happiness, his future — to come crashing down on him in the moment of her walking past.

    Here “wrack” is a noun meaning “wreck.” The beautiful house is a wreck crashing down.

  • Albert

    Either/or is as good? Not darned likely! Like all these language issues there ‘IS’ a right and a wrong way. Dictionaries can be changed and force errors into usage but they are still cracks in the structure. The wrong way creeps in and confuses things because nowadays those without the knowledge to know which is correct don’t have the gumption to admit it and follow what those who do know advise. They insist it doesn’t matter and, hey presto, another brick is taken out of the wall and the language slips a step bacwards in its precision.

    Compare the English, (not modern Amlish which should be seen as different), language with others. There are more musical sounding ones like Italian, there are more elegantly vague and intuitive ones like Japanese, but there is no other language in the world which has been deverloped and structured to offer such exact expression of what is intended than English. Or there didn’t used to be, until we started to deconstruct it in the name of equality. For equality read, “it’s only fair that we all have to become equally illiterate!”

    For Pete’s sake why not learn the reasons why the language is the way it is and it becomes easier to use correctly. For example why do many words end in a silent ‘e’? It’s useless nowadays isn’t it? Wrong! The ‘e’ tells you how it should be pronounced. It’s the difference between cap and cape, pin and pine. And if there is no why or wherefore to something, just learn it correctly by rote and get on with it.

    There are too many whingers trying to make the weak strong by making the strong weak in all walks of life!

  • Michael / South Bay Foodies

    Thanks for the correction. I just changed “wracking their brains” to “under pressure”. So much easier. Ha! 😀

  • Finkler

    I was wondering about this same sentence in the first page of ‘The finkler question’…

  • fmm hossain

    In ‘The Finkler Question,’ you will find ‘only for every wrack of it’. Can anyone explain what the phrase means actually?

  • thorn

    home brewers (possibly the other kind as well) ‘rack’ their beer, too. that is, they move it from one fermenter to another by means of a siphon in order to separate the nice, clear beer from the sediment that falls out during the primary fermentation. i wonder whether that ‘rack’ also comes from the torture rack. or maybe it’s a different root/word origin altogether. oed here i come…

  • Grant

    I also agree with Josef that the term “wrack one’s brains” is not disqualified, but for dfferent reason. This is also consistent with my take on “nerve wracking”, in response to the query from skm on April 3 above. I learned to spell, and speak over sixty years ago, and in those days we always used the expression “to wrack one’s brains” rather than “to rack one’s brains”.

    I consulted my most venerable dictionary which is 125 years old, and it gives a range of meanings for “rack” which principally include stretch or torment as on a rack, or engine of torture, but do not include wreck or ruin. The same dictionary has less to say about “wrack” It is a marine plant out of which kelp is made, or seaweed as is thrown ashore by waves. Just as for “rack” it can refer to thin flying clouds, but unlike “rack” it can also refer to the destruction of a ship by winds on rocks, etc, or ruin.

    The dictionary also has a section dedicated to Scottish words. In the Scottish of the day, “wrack” meant “to tease or to vex”, and to me the latter meaning is undoubtedly the most apposite in the phrase “wrack my brains”

  • John

    I agree with Josef, there is nothing to say “wracking one’s brain” is incorrect. In fact if you take Merriam-Webster’s word for it the definiton of the verb wrack is rack so either one would be correct.

  • Kris

    somehow i always thought it was supposed to be “raking” ones brain, like dragging a rake across it to see what you come up with. i could never figure out why people pronounced it funny. boy was i off.

  • skm

    what is the difference between nerve wracking and nerve racking ? which of these is correct?

  • Qrystal

    So I was racking my brain to figure out whether I was wracking or racking my brain, and found myself glad I didn’t wrack it.

  • Josef

    I don’t think this disqualifies the term ‘wrack one’s brains’, in fact, it may even reinforce it. It would make more sense for someone to destroy their brains thinking too hard on something, rather than stretch it.. but I suppose it’s a matter of choice of words/situation.

  • Travel Writers Exchange

    Perhaps to “rack ones brains” means to drain it as in racking wine from the dregs. At least that’s how I feel, (drained) after I have “racked my brain”.

  • nutmeag

    So does the phrase “rack ones brains” mean to use one’s brain to the point of torture, or to stretch it thin?

  • MsB

    Sounds like it’s related to the wrap/rap problem, as in wrapping things up or rapping things up. Would love to see a post addressing these 2 words as well.

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