The English language has gone to rack and ruin. Or is it wrack and ruin? These are not variants of the same word. They mean different things and are not interchangeable.
Wrack as a noun refers to destruction or wreckage. It shares origins with wreak.
Rack, quite differently, is to stretch. It originally referred to a frame on which cloth or a hide was dried. This meaning was enlarged to take in the function of the medieval device used to (rather painfully) stretch peasants for heinous crimes such as poaching their master’s rabbits.
These are old definitions, I grant you. But when they have distinct meanings, why would they need to change? To rack your brain is to torture it, to wrack your brain would be to ruin it.
Muddying the waters further, modern usage of the phrase has come to mean searching the brain, which is neither wrecking nor torturing.
But let’s settle this. “Wrack your brain” is wrong. It should be “rack your brain”.
Separately, gone to wrack and ruin is correct. You wreck something, or neglect it to a degree where it has significantly deteriorated.
Some dictionaries disagree with me. I have read what they say, considered the matter and rejected their arguments. I believe using wrack as wreck, and rack as stretch have logical foundations.
However, before you berate me for my simpleton ways consider this. I’d find it difficult to believe anyone would write wrack up snooker balls. Or wrack up points.
But a rack, as a device for holding (as with a triangle for snooker balls) or to rack up (stretch or grow the number of points) stem from the same root as our medieval torture device. These are structures or frameworks. In my view, using that as a basis for deciding when to use rack (or wrack) makes sense.
Like most word problems of this nature, the misuse arose because people don’t know there is a difference, and they don’t bother to research the definitions.
The words discreet and discrete are suffering the same creeping malaise. Discreet is respectful of privacy or secrecy. Discrete is separate, distinct, individual. But few writers these days know or care that this is so. They are wrongly regarded as variant spellings. On the whole, the meaning of maintaining a secret (discreet) seems to be winning the race to remain a word. Through our stupidity, we are losing “discrete”.
Word of the week
Excessively fond of drinking alcohol. E.G. “Surely only bibulous folk would write ‘gone to wrack and ruin’?”.
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