While I was writing this weekend I got stuck. I needed a character to rack her brains…I mean wrack…or wreck? Wreak? This is what happens when you speak a language that stole so much from other languages—you end up with words that sound identical yet have various definitions and inferred meanings. I turned to Almighty Google to shed some light on the situation.
“Rack” comes from a mix of the Middle Dutch and Middle German words “rec”, “recken”, and “rek”. A “rek” is a horizontal bar or shelf, and “recken” as a verb means to stretch or to reach. This is the word we use in phrases related to pain or intense stress, thanks to the old torture practices of putting someone “on the rack” (where they stretched you by ropes on your arms and legs. Ow).
“Wrack” is generally considered to be a variant spelling of “rack”, though one definition does show it to mean a shipwreck. In that case, the word came from Middle Dutch “wrak” and English “wreak”. It carries a strong sense of being pushed too far (i.e. a ship to shore), as well as damage and destruction.
“Wreak” is on Old English word (“wrecan”) with Germanic influences. Like “wrack” above, it carries a sense of pushing or shoving, but it also indicates an infliction of vengeance. This is the word we use in the phrase “wreak havoc”—whatever people wreak, it’s usually destruction. It’s incorrect to say “wrack havoc” or “wrack destruction” because “wracking” has no sense of cause or infliction as “wreak” does.
“Wreck”, like “rack” and “wrack” comes from words that indicate destruction and ruin. In the 12th century it was used as “to take vengeance” (just like “wreak”. That’s not confusing at all.) This word is used almost exclusively to describe shipwrecks and—now that we have other vehicles—the broken remains of cars, planes, trains, and even people.
Many dictionaries give definitions for these words, and in the next sentence they say, “But so many people use it incorrectly that the incorrect usage is now correct.” I know I’m a grammar and spelling snob because this approach frustrates me. But I did finally figure out which word to use: wrack. It’s the one word that carries a sense of being pushed to a point of intense pain—the pain of thinking incredibly hard, as in the case of “wracking one’s brains”.
Michelle enjoys the rabbit trail that is etymology.