"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:
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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