Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: wrack; rack, vb.

wrack; rack, vb. “Wrack” = to destroy utterly; to wreck. “Rack” = to torture or oppress. “Wrack” is also, and primarily, a noun meaning (1) “wreckage”; or (2) “utter destruction.” The set phrases are “to rack one’s brains” and “wrack and ruin.” The root meaning of “brain-racking” refers to stretching, hence to torture by stretching. The transitive verb “rack” shouldn’t be confused with the noun “wrack” — e.g.: “After I had received Rose’s letter begging my assistance and realized that I would soon need to borrow a large sum of money, I had wracked [read ‘racked’] my brains for some time to decide whom I should approach.” Susan Howatch, Penmarric 6 (1971; repr. 1990). As for the phrase “wrack and ruin,” it is sometimes erroneously written *”wreck and ruin” — e.g.: “This is all about . . . people whose morals will go to wreck and ruin [read ‘wrack and ruin’] now.” “Next, They’ll All Be Reading ‘Huck Finn,'” N.Y. Times, 25 Mar. 1985, at A18. In sum, writers who aren’t careful about these words will torture their readers and end up dashed on the rocks. A less common mangling of “wrack and ruin” is the homophonic *”rack and ruin” — e.g.: “‘We were told the house had gone to rack and ruin [read ‘wrack and ruin’] before our neighbor purchased it and did a complete restoration.'” C.W. Cameron, “B&B Owners Ready to Hand Over Keys for Home’s Third Chapter,” Atlanta J.-Const., 26 Oct. 2008, at S4 (quoting Dina Glardon, B&B owner). Language-Change Index — (1) “wrack” misused for “rack”: Stage 3; (2) *”wreck and ruin” for “wrack and ruin”: Stage 2; (3) *”rack and ruin” for “wrack and ruin”: Stage 1. *Invariably inferior form. For information about Language-Change Index click here. Quotation of the Day: “A completely honest autobiography is probably impossible.” H.L. Mencken, Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks 59 (1956).
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