The difference between wrack and rack is more than a wandering w. Though the two words have increasingly become interchangeable, they have different meanings.
|On the rack
To say your nerves are racked is to suggest they have been stretched on a medieval torture device called the rack. Wrack, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned version of wreck that was originally used to mean a shipwreck.
Confusing the two is understandable, as a nerve-racking experience can leave you feeling something of a wreck. Just remember that expressions with rack are not about destruction but about unbearable tension—being stretched until you beg for the sweet release of death. For example, you can be racked with guilt or rack your brain for information.
- She was racked with pain at the sight of the strip mall’s architecture.
- I’ve been on the rack since yesterday’s rain of frogs, nervously awaiting the End Times.
- It’s such a shame he’s let his father’s old teaspoon museum go to wrack and ruin.
- “Ring the alarum-bell! Blow, wind! Come, wrack!”
|Wrack and ruin
That said, today most dictionaries will allow “nerve-wracking” and “wrack your brain” as acceptable variant spellings. And the expression “wrack and ruin” has been spelled both with and without a w since at least 1599.
No one ever accused the English language of being consistent.