Q&A: Rack vs wrack

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're racking our brain…

Q: I’m always getting confused about whether I should be “wracked with guilt” or “racking my brain” – or the other way round. Can you help?

A: We sure can. Wouldn’t want things to go to rack and ruin. Or is it wrack and ruin?

Q: That’s what I was hoping you’d clear up for me.

A: Indeed. So, as origin stories go, these two words are like Superman and a tub of yogurt.

Q: Both highly cultured?

A: No.

Q: Both low in fat?

A: No. We were going to say that they’re nothing alike.

Q: Oh, yeah, that works too.

A: “Rack” as a noun originated around the 1300s from Middle Dutch – as a “frame with bars”, derived from a bunch of words that meant to “stretch out”.

Q: Ooooh, like a torture rack?

A: Yes, just like one of those.

Q: Ugh those torture racks give me the creeps. With all those little jars of oregano and thyme, rosemary. Paprika!

A: You’re describing a spice rack.

Q: Yes, I find cooking to be torture.

A: Right, well, anyway. Meanwhile, the noun “wrack” didn’t show up for another century or so, and essentially meant the same thing as a shipwreck. It derived from words meaning “damage” or “destruction”.

Q: Okay, so they sound the same but had different childhoods.

A: Correct. But remember, most people have no problem knowing how to spell a wooden “rack” while modern usage of “wrack” is either a type of seaweed or still a description of wreckage.

Q: So why do so many people get them confused now?

A: It’s the verbs that cause the problems.

Q: Pesky verbs. Always DOING things.

A: Exactly. And this is where original meanings set the tone but modern usage has messed things up.

Q: Please explain.

A: Remember how “rack” had stretching out or torturing origins? Well that’s what was originally intended with “racked with guilt”, “nerve-racking” or “racking my brain” – to be stretched or tortured.

Q: So you can’t say “wracked with guilt”, “nerve-wracking” or “wracking my brain”?

A: Well, this is where things get muddy. Modern usage has seen these variants grow in popularity – perhaps through the association of “wrack” with wrecking something. After all, it could be argued that being “destroyed with guilt” makes sense along with “damaging/destroying one’s nerves”. It started off incorrect, but most dictionaries now accept both.

Q: So “wrack” was a corruption but is now widely accepted?

A: Yes. However, most language boffins including us would suggest the best option is to use “rack” in all the stretchy-torture verb phrases instead of “wrack”. This even includes saying “rack and ruin” even though #teamwrack does have a legit wreckage-based claim to this one.

Q: So to recap, both are accepted, yet “rack” is the better option in most cases?

A: Yes. We’d even go so far as to say not to use “wrack” as a verb at all. But at the same time, don’t get too upset if you see one in the wild.

Q: We’ve certainly racked up the knowledge today. Actually, while we’re here – is the thing you play tennis with a “racket” or a “racquet”?

A: Good question. Officially, the world tennis body calls it a “racket”. However, here in Australia and New Zealand, we tend to save “racket” just for loud noises or an illegal scheme (e.g. “a drugs racket”) and favour “racquet” for the sporting equipment.

Q: Interesting. I guess people also like using “racquet” to sound fancier.

A: Yes, you might see a “Racquets Club” in America for example. “Racquet” was actually a misspelling of the original French “raquette” – so really it’s a bit of a mess trying hard to look elegant.

Q: Sounds a lot like my tennis game…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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