rack vs. wrack

What is the difference between rack and wrack?

The word wrack (pronounced /ræk/, with a silent W) is related to the word wreck, meaning “a wreckage” or, as a verb, “to destroy or ruin.” Wrack is now largely archaic, though, only appearing in the set phrase wrack and ruin (meaning “total collapse, destruction, or ruination”). For example:
  • “It greatly pains me that my grandfather's estate has been left to go to wrack and ruin.”
  • “The terrible handling of the scandal has brought the company nothing but wrack and ruin.”
Because of this specialized usage, there are a few other phrases in which wrack is often used, especially wrack one’s brains (meaning “to exert a lot of mental effort to remember something”) or nerve-wracking (meaning “causing anxiety; very stressful on the nerves”). It also appears in sentences like, “Pain wracked her body,” though this is a bit less common.
However, in these phrases, the word rack is actually considered the more correct spelling to use. While rack most often refers to a structural framework that holds or contains something, it has a less common meaning of “to torture or cause great suffering to,” a reference to a medieval torture device known as the rack.
Because wrack is associated with destruction or ruination, wrack one’s brains and nerve-wracking seem logical because of the figurative sense of destroying one’s brain or nerves, but, because the phrases are more about mental stress or suffering, rack one’s brain and nerve-racking are the most correct.
All of that having been said, wrack is a widely accepted variant in these phrases, and (linguistic purists aside) few would judge this spelling as incorrect. If you want to be sure that your writing is absolutely accurate, though, rack is technically the better choice.
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