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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"Racked My Brain"

In my Alborada recap last night I started using the phrase "racked my brain" and felt sudden distressing doubt about how to spell it. I googled it and found this:

Extracts from
The Maven's Word of the Day

Joann Hill writes: "Racking my brain -- I recently wrote this phrase for the first time after using it only in conversation before and I wasn't sure how to spell it. Should it be racking my brain or wracking my brain? And it made me wonder about its origin. Do you have any information about this phrase?"

The spellings rack and wrack represent about nine (or seven, or sixteen--it depends who's dividing things up) different etymologically unrelated words, some of which have meanings that overlap. The spellings of these words have varied over the years, and the interrelated strands are so "exceedingly complicated" that our colleague Robert Burchfield, former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, recommends that you "spare an hour (at least) to consult a large dictionary" to understand them.

The word rack in racking (one's) brain ... derives from the rack, the medieval instrument of torture on which a victim was slowly stretched. (This stems from the familiar rack 'a framework'.) This rack was used as a verb meaning 'to torture on the rack', and hence in the transferred sense 'to torture', and then figuratively 'to stretch or strain', which is the sense in rack (one's) brain.

The expression nerve-racking also ultimately derives from this rack.

One word wrack ... means 'damage or destruction', and is related to wreck and wreak. A different wrack means 'something wrecked; wreckage', or as a verb 'to wreck; ruin'. So the correct phrases are wrack and ruin and storm-wracked.

Nerve-wracking and rack and ruin are both relatively common in America.

Because of semantic overlap it is not always possible to tell which word is meant: if a business is "(w)racked" by competition, is it being tortured by competition, or is it being ruined by competition?

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At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where's William Safire when you need him?

At 11:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try word nerd Howard Richler:

At 11:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

amazing! i just had the EXACT same question (ie how do you spell 'rack' in this exact context?), googled 'racking my brain' & yours was the FIRST entry with probably as precise an answer anyone could expect. how the heck did google know i was looking for the SPELLING?! well, it didnt... but still...pretty amazing...

At 3:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had the exact same question. I use the phrase verbally quite a bit, but I'm not usually called to write it, so I was stumped. Thanks for this entry.

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, this was just what I needed!

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was racking my brain looking for a way to write this :) it's weird how you say things all of the time then they seem so odd when you put them on paper! Thanks for such a fantastic and precise posting. Very interesting!! :)

At 7:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also had this question, though a few years after the wrest of you.

My first instinct was to google the phrase both ways ("racking my brain" vs. "wracking my brain"), and see which one had more online references. This isn't a very good way to settle the question, but I thought it would tell me if one spelling was clearly correct or strongly preferred to the other.

For the record, as of today, 12/3/2008, "racking my brain" had 791,000 references on google, and "wracking my brain" had 102,000 references.

Then I read your blog entry, which gave me a better basis for deciding which way to go. For my letter, I chose "racking." Thanks.

At 12:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe how many of us had this question...thank you so much for your post!!

At 9:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You gotta love the internet!!! Everything is right there when you need it. Now I can stop racking my brain over "racking my brain"! LOL!Thanks for this!

At 3:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great thread. I was writing the phrase in a FB comment and didn't know how to spell it either!

At 9:04 PM, Anonymous Scotty Mack said...

Now I'm totally confused over which spelling I should use in a letter I'm writing. I've been racking my brain so much over this I may have wracked it!

At 9:09 PM, Blogger Julie said...

Too funny. I knew it was "racking my brain" but have been writing "nerve-wracking" for years. I had no idea it was wrong until I read this blog post today! THANKS!!


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