Pick your poison.
Dear Word Detective: So the derecho you experienced a couple of months ago was surely a nerve-wracking experience. Or was it a “nerve-racking” experience? Being rather fond of old words and original spellings, I hope that “nerve-wracking” is more historically pure, but I can’t find much in the way of certitude on this question on the interweb. — Danny.
Yes, the derecho was a real drag. On the scale of things that have happened to us since we moved from Manhattan to rural Ohio, it ranks somewhere above the ice storm a few years ago that knocked out power for a week and below the lightning that zapped me back in ’04. Life out here seems to consist of long stretches of tedium punctuated by nature trying to kill us.
The answer to your question about “wrack” versus “rack” in the expression “nerve-wracking” (or “wrack and ruin” or “racking one’s brain”) is, unfortunately, not as simple as it ought to be. As a matter of fact, the debate over whether “wrack” or “rack” is proper in each of these phrases is a muddle that has driven usage mavens bananas for decades. And I might as well admit at the outset that there is no clear answer to the question, so I hope none of you out there have any bar bets riding on this one.
Oddly enough, our journey to nowhere begins on a promising note. The words “wrack” and “rack” are etymologically completely separate, i.e., come from different sources. “Wrack” as a verb comes from the noun “wrack,” which appeared in the 14th century meaning “shipwreck” (and is related to our English word “wreck”). To “wrack” in the 16th century was to undergo or cause a shipwreck. Later that century, it was generalized to mean “to cause the ruin or downfall of a person” or “to spoil or destroy” something.
“Rack,” on the other hand, comes from Germanic roots with the sense of “to stretch out,” which produced the usual modern use of “rack” to mean a sort of frame on which things are supported or from which they are suspended. In the 15th century, mechanized racks designed to stretch cloth and leather were put to use as instruments of torture, and “rack” as a verb developed the meaning of “to inflict extreme pain; to be tormented by pain or disease.”
So if there is a distinction to be made between the modern uses of “wrack” and “rack” in such phrases as “nerve-wracking” (meaning “very stressful”), “rack and ruin” (meaning “utter destruction”) and “to wrack one’s brain” (“to desperately search one’s mind for information”), it might be based on “wrack” carrying the sense of “destroy” and “rack” connoting “torture,” “force” or “torment.” By this rationale, usage experts over the years have tended to specify “rack” for the brain and nerves, but “wrack” for the devastation of “wrack and ruin.”
Unfortunately, the actual history of these three phrases is less than helpful, to put it mildly. “Rack” appeared in the first printed use of “rack one’s brain” found so far, from the 16th century. That “rack” conjures up the image of a brain being subjected to extreme duress. But the phrase soon began to appear as “wrack one’s brain,” as if one’s mind were being torn apart in search of the desired knowledge. Confusingly, the two forms have coexisted in popular writing ever since.
“Wrack and ruin” first appeared in the 17th century, but had evidently appeared as “rack and ruin” somewhat earlier, and, predictably, both of these forms have been common since that time. “Nerve-wracking” first appeared in print in 1909, but, as you can probably guess, “rack” has stood in for “wrack” frequently.
One problem in sorting all this out is that the two words are not only homophones (identical in sound), but very close in sense, so it’s hard to point to a particular form and pronounce it logically wrong. And thanks to the tangled and inconsistent historical records of these three phrases, you can’t even point to a known original form. Personally, I prefer “wrack and ruin,” “rack one’s mind” and “nerve-wracking,” but I think anyone who writes these phrases should be prepared to be “corrected” by a true believer in the opposite form.