Saturday, 15 November 2008

Rack: thoughts of a pedant

One of the most frequent typos I come across while reading unpublished writing is wrack when it should be rack. I've come across it three or four times in the past month alone, in expressions such as:

racked with sobs/coughing
to rack one's brains

I think it happens when writers reach for a word or expression without fully imagining what they are describing, because of course the reference is to the torture rack; a horrific device for extracting a confession by subjecting the victim to graduated pain and destruction. Just looking it up to find an illustration for this post made me feel sick.

And I had an additional thought; why is torture viewed as entertainment, if it happened long enough ago? Surely no one would regard IRA knee-capping or the torture of American soldiers at the hands of the Vietnamese as ghoulishly fascinating? But otherwise normal parents take their children to the London Dungeon, or the basement of Madame Tussaud's, for a merry outing learning about the ingeniously cruel tortures humans devised a few hundred years ago. Very odd.

(N.B. An interesting case is rack and ruin, where the reference is not to torture, but to wrack, an old spelling of wreck. But it's still spelled rack.)


  1. The American Heritage Dictionary lists rack as an alternate spelling to wrack. That's the problem with language it's hard to keep in one place for long, even on a rack.

  2. Hello Lexi

    That all depends on what dictionary you are using. Extract from the Oxford Dictionary of English (2nd edition):


    1) A framework, typically with rails, bars, hooks, or pegs, for holding or storing things: a spice rack | a letter rack.

     an overhead shelf on a coach, train, or plane for stowing luggage.
     a vertically barred frame for holding animal fodder: a hay rack.
     N. Amer – informal – a bed.

    2) A cogged or toothed bar or rail engaging with a wheel or pinion, or using pegs to adjust the position of something: a steering rack.

    3) (the rack) – historical – an instrument of torture consisting of a frame on which the victim was stretched by turning rollers to which the wrists and ankles were tied.

    4) A triangular structure for positioning the balls in pool. Compare with frame (in sense 5).

     a single game of pool.

    5) N. Amer. – a set of antlers.

    6) A digital effects unit for a guitar or other instrument, typically giving many different sounds.

    VERB [With obj.]
    1) (Also wrack) Cause extreme pain, anguish, or distress to: he was racked with guilt.

     historical torture (someone) on the rack.

    2) [With obj. and adverbial of place] Place in or on a rack: the shoes were racked neatly beneath the dresses.

    3) (Rack something up) accumulate or achieve something, typically a score or amount: Japan is racking up record trade surpluses with the United States.

    4) Move by a rack and pinion.

    5) Chiefly archaic – raise (rent) above a fair or normal amount. See also rack-rent.

     oppress (a tenant) by exacting excessive rent.

    Go to rack (or wrack) and ruin: gradually deteriorate in condition because of neglect; fall into disrepair. [rack from Old English wræc 'vengeance'; related to wreak.]

    Off the rack: North American term for off the peg (see peg).

    On the rack: suffering intense distress or strain.

    Rack (or wrack) one's brains (or brain) make a great effort to think of or remember something.

    Middle English: from Middle Dutch ‘rec’, Middle Low German ‘rek’ 'horizontal bar or shelf', probably from recken 'to stretch, reach' (possibly the source of sense 1 of the verb).

    USAGE: The relationship between the forms rack and wrack is complicated. The most common noun sense of rack 'a framework for holding and storing things' is always spelled rack, never wrack. The figurative senses of the verb, deriving from the type of torture in which someone is stretched on a rack, can, however, be spelled either rack or wrack: thus racked with guilt or wracked with guilt; rack your brains or wrack your brains. In addition, the phrase rack and ruin can also be spelled wrack and ruin. In the contexts mentioned here as having the variant wrack, rack
    is always the commoner spelling.

  3. Yes, Norm, even the French are giving up.

    Anon, everything in your comment supports my post, doesn't it? It makes clear that 'wrack' is almost always a careless misspelling of 'rack'.

    The case rests, m'lud.

  4. Hi Lexi - I think I correctly use 'wrack' for the debris in the tide mark left behind by a flood. I'm getting paid to write in that context so I hope I'm getting it right! I guess it's from the 'olde English' wrack as in wrack and ruin. But yes, more commonly spelt rack and ruin these days, interchangeable in that context though perhaps? You've got me worried now...

    My personal pedant's pet hate is when people say they'll do something with a 'fine toothcomb' so I imagine them combing their teeth instead of using a 'fine-tooth comb'.

    As for torture as entertainment, it's all too grizzly for me. Can't even watch mild horror films.

  5. I dislike people, particularly politicians, talking about a 'sea change' when they just mean a change - but I've posted about that before. And people using the expression 'pet peeve' - grrrr.

    Re films - 'Jaws' made me laugh because the shark model looked like a sofa devouring its victims - totally failed to convince. But I avoid horror. Not my thing at all.

  6. Some fuel for your fire.

    I have a Nuttall's "Dictionary of the English Language based on the labours of the most EMINENT LEXICOGRAPHERS New and Greatly Enlarged Edition". From this I have gathered that it is old.

    For Wrack it gives - a seaweed... blah blah seaweed
    And - popularly but erroneously for rack, a thin, flying cloud.

    For Rack it gives many meanings, far too many for me to list here. It gives no alternative spellings except for Rack - Wreck (Wrack).

    Anonymous - when was the 2nd edition published? Nuttall's gives no date.

  7. Anna, go away, you're just confusing me.

    (Thinks: I could have used Lexi Cographer as my writing name...)