Homonyms are confusing creatures. Who hasn’t mistakenly written “you’re” instead of “your” or “their” instead of “there”?
But as confounding as it may be, at least most homonyms follow clear rules, and any proficient language user can tell you which word you should be using in each context.
For example, almost every English speaker is aware that “your” is a possessive pronoun while “you’re” is a contraction of “you are.”
And, accordingly, each one of these homonyms has its own place in the English language.
However, some homonyms may have similar meanings or may have been used interchangeably over the years, muddying the waters and blurring the line dividing the two.
One such case is the pair “rack” and “wrack,” and nowhere is the line between the two more blurred than in the phrases “rack your brain” and “wrack your brain,” both of which have been written by professional writers in the past.
Is it “to rack my brain” or “to wrack my brain”?
The official answer is that the correct phrase is “to rack your brain”. Conversely, the unofficial answer is that both forms are correct and that you can use whichever version your prefer.
Why is “rack your brain” the officially correct form?
To understand why, we will have to learn the etymology of both “rack” and “wrack” and see how these disparate words have developed over the years.
The etymology of “rack”
For starters, the word “rack” has more than one meaning, and it can be used both as a noun and as a verb.
Most people attribute the origins of the word “rack” to the Middle Dutch word “rec,” which meant “framework.”
And, it is also believed that “rack” was related to and had the same origins as the Old English word “recken,” which meant to “stretch out.”
As a result, in Middle English, “rack” was used to denote a frame that was used to dry and stretch things out on, specifically leather.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before “rack” came to mean a frame that human beings are stretched on as a form of torture, and it is this definition that gives us the expression “to rack one’s brain.”
After all, “rack” came to be associated with mental harm and physical suffering.
And, soon after that, the word “rack” acquired a few more definitions, including “to stretch” or “to strain.”
So, if we follow the thread here, we will find that “to rack one’s brain” means to stretch it and strain to the degree of torture.
This is also where an expression like “rack one’s nerves” comes from.
The etymology of “wrack”
Similar to “rack,” “wrack” can be used as both a noun and a verb.
“Wrack” is believed to be a descendant of the Middle Dutch word “wrak,” which meant to “wreck.”
Consequently, “wrack” was used to refer to “shipwreck,” and “wrack” came to mean “to damage or to destroy.”
Other possible origins of this word include the Old English word “wraec,” which meant “misery,” and “wrecan,” which meant “to punish.”
Afterward, “wrack” also involved the meaning of flotsam, seaweed, or jetsam that gets washed up on the beach, which might explain how “wrack” came to connote a state of decay and disrepair.
This is why we ended up with the expression “wrack and ruin.”
So, why is it “to rack one’s brain” rather than “to wrack one’s brain”?
The expression in question means to say that the individual is straining their brain to the degree that they are torturing themselves.
However, it is not trying to say that the individual in question is bringing their brain to a state of disrepair and decay.”
Ergo, the following examples are correct forms of the expression.
In fact, the first known usage of the expression “to rack one’s brain” was produced by the bishop William Beveridge in one of his sermons. This is what he said.
Just for reference, William Beveridge was born in 1637, and the sermon quoted above was probably given sometime around 1680.
Why all the confusion?
There are many reasons.
For starters, “rack” and “wrack” have been confused for one another as long as they have both existed.
After all, they are homonyms.
For instance, even though the correct form of the expression is “wrack and ruin,” which we saw above, people have been writing the incorrect “rack and ruin” as far back as the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
And, the first known instance of someone incorrectly writing “rack and ruin” dates back to 1599 and can be found in the History of Corpus Christi College by Thomas Fowler.
Another reason for the confusion is that language is more about usage than etymology.
You see, even if a word has a specific origin, its meaning will always relate to its usage first and foremost.
And, the problem here is that some consider “wrack” and “rack” to be variant spellings of the same word.
In fact, some usage guides, including the Merriam Webster Dictionary, will tell you that both “rack your brain” and “wrack your brain” are correct.
Finally, since both “rack” and “wrack” have a negative connotation, it is easy to see how they can be conflated for one another.
Which one should you use?
Different style guides will offer you different suggestions.
For example, the New York Time Manual of Style and Usage will tell you that “wrack” is not only archaic but should also be tossed away from your lexicon entirely as most, if not all, instances will require the word “rack.”
You eat a “rack of ribs,” and you put your clothes “on the rack.” And, in these two examples, you cannot use the word “wrack.”
Other guides will tell you to use either “rack your brain” or “wrack your brain” since they are both correct. These guides are more concerned with usage than with etymological correctness.
And, some guides suggest accuracy and tell you that you should say “rack your brain” but “wrack and ruins.”
The choice you go for is entirely up to you.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.