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?
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!