Word Confusion: Rack versus Wrack

Posted May 9, 2012 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

It’s another of my own word confusions. I’d get all twisted out of shape, wracked ya might say, when I’d come across what I thought was a mis-use of rack or wrack. Turns out I’m half right and half wrong. Certain definitions of rack and wrack are interchangeable — yes, *grin*, they’re marked below. And others are definite no-nos!

Both rack and wrack can be used when referring to a torturous process: wrack and ruin can also be a rack and ruin although personally, I think that wrack tends to create more of a sense of wreckage as opposed to rack which only makes me think of some sort of cage.

One can also be racked (or wracked) with guilt or another could rack (or wrack) his or her brains. Again, I think that wrack creates more of a sense of destruction while rack tends to contain or direct.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Rack Wrack
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Merriam-Webster: rack and wrack

GIF animation of how rack-and-pinion works

Image by Brian0918 and enlarged by Guam~commonswiki via Wikimedia Commons. The GIF is in the public domain courtesy of OSHA.

Rack-and-pinion animation.


A close-up of bladder wrack, a type of seaweed

Image by Stemonitis [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

A close-up of bladder wrack on a beach in Wales.

Part of Grammar:
Late Middle English variant spelling of wrack


Noun 1, 2, 3, 4
Verb, intransitive 2, 5, 7 & transitive 1, 6

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: racks
Past tense or past participle: racked
Gerund or present participle: racking

Late Middle English variant spelling of rack


Noun 8, 9, 10
Verb, intransitive & transitive 11

Plural for the noun and third person present verb: wracks
Past tense or past participle: wracked
Gerund or present participle: wracking

Noun:
Framework, usually with rails, bars, hooks, or pegs for holding or storing things Never, ever use wrack. 1

  • A stack of digital effects units for a guitar or other instrument
  • Overhead shelf on a bus, train, or plane
  • Vertically barred arrangement for holding animal fodder

A cogged or toothed bar or rail engaging with a wheel or pinion, or using pegs to

Adjust the position of something

[North America] Set of antlers

[North America; slang] Woman’s breasts

[North America; informal] Bed

[Historical] Instrument of torture consisting of a frame on which the victim was stretched by turning rollers to which the wrists and ankles were tied

Triangular structure for positioning balls in pool

  • [British] A single game of snooker
    • The balls as set up

Lift used to repair vehicles

A fast, showy, four-beat gait in which both hoofs on either side in turn are lifted almost simultaneously, and all four hoofs are off the ground together at certain moments 2

Large cut of meat, typically lamb 3

  • The neck and spine of a forequarter of veal, pork, or especially mutton
  • The rib section of a lamb’s forequarters used for chops or as a roast

[Also wrack] Mass of high, thick, fast-moving clouds 4

Verb, intransitive:
[Of a horse] Move with a rack gait 2

[Of a cloud; also wrack] Be driven before the wind 5

  • To fly or scud in high wind

To become forced out of shape or out of plumb 7

Verb, transitive:
[Also wrack] Cause extreme physical or mental pain to 1, 1a

  • [Also wrack] Subject to extreme stress
  • [Historical; also wrack] Torture someone on the rack
  • To stretch or strain violently

Place in or on a rack Never, ever use wrack.

  • To place pool balls in a rack

[Chiefly archaic] Raise rent above a fair or normal amount

  • To harass or oppress with high rents or extortions

To seize as parallel ropes of a tackle together

Draw off wine, beer, etc. from the sediment in the barrel 6

Work or treat material on a rack

Work by a rack-and-pinion or worm so as to extend or contract

[Also wrack] Cause extreme physical or mental pain to someone, something

[Also wrack] Subject to extreme stress
Noun:
Coarse brown seaweeds that grow on the shoreline 8

  • Dried seaweed

[Archaic] Wrecked ship, shipwreck 9

  • Wreckage
  • [Dialect] Violent destruction of a structure, machine, or vehicle
  • A remnant of something destroyed 10

Verb, intransitive:
[Of a cloud; also rack] Be driven before the wind

Verb, transitive:
[Also rack] Cause extreme physical or mental pain to someone, something

[Also rack] Subject to extreme stress

To utterly ruin 11

Examples:
Noun:
Get the car up on the rack.

Fill up that hay rack for the cows.

Arnie’s woman is kinda bossy, but she’s got a nice rack.

Hang the spice rack on that wall.

Geez, I gotta clean out this magazine rack.

Yum! Rack of lamb!

Place the cake on a wire rack to cool.

“Most of her clothes are off the rack,” she sniffed.

There was a thin moon, a rack of cloud in the sky that night.

Rack-and-pinion steering is one of the essential components of a car.

“He’s really let this place go to rack and ruin,” he muttered.

Verb, intransitive:
Ideally, you should train a horse to rack when they’re young.

Dark clouds racked across the sky.

“Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun, not separated with the racking clouds, but severed in a pale, clear-shining sky.”
– Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 3

He racked the camera.

Verb, transitive:
He was racked with guilt.

The shoes were racked neatly beneath the dresses.

The wine is racked off into large oak casks.

He’s racked up our rent!

Rack up the balls.

The legality of racking a prisoner was questioned in 1628.

Noun:
A lot of wrack has washed up on the shore.

“He’s really let this place go to wrack and ruin,” he muttered.

Verb, intransitive:
Dark clouds wracked across the sky.

“Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun, not separated with the wracking clouds, but severed in a pale, clear-shining sky.”
– Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 3

Verb, transitive:
He was wracked with guilt.

He’s really having to wrack his brains for that answer!

The legality of wracking a prisoner was questioned in 1628.

Derivatives:
Noun: rackful, racker
Adverb: rackingly
History of the Word:
1 Middle English from the Middle Dutch rec and the Middle Low German rek meaning horizontal bar or shelf, probably from recken meaning to stretch, reach and the most likely source for 1a.

2 First known use: 1580 and of unknown origin

3 First known use 1570 and of unknown origin

4 14th century with the Middle English meaning of rain cloud or rapid movement denoting a rush or collision, probably of Scandinavian origin. Compare it with the Norwegian and Swedish dialect rak meaning wreckage, from reka meaning to drive.

5 First known use: 1590

6 Late 15th century from the Provençal arracar, from raca stems and husks of grapes, dregs.

7 First known use: 15th century

8 First known use was in 14th century as wrak from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German and akin to the Old English wræc as something driven by the sea.

9 Late Middle English from the Middle Dutch wrak and related to wreak and wreck.

10 First known use was in the 14th century from the Old English wræc meaning misery, or punishment, or something driven by the sea. It’s akin to Old English wrecan meaning to drive or punish.

11 First known use: 1562

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

“Sign for the Rack and Manager” by Trish Steel is under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.


2 responses to “Word Confusion: Rack versus Wrack

  1. I absolutely cannot describe how annoying the whole/hole mistake is. I recently read an indie zombie novel the used “asswhole” throughout the book, and then talked about the ‘hole world’. It was an exact flip-flop.

    After a while, I started to think about maybe its worse to be an asswhole. I mean, if we call someone an ass, or a specific part of the ass, wouldn’t it be worse to be the whole thing?

    And what about those poor people that live in ‘hole world?’ What do you think their life is like, their entire existence carried out underground in a tiny hole in the ground.

    • Oh, oh, oh, but if it weren’t for that author (and you!), I wouldn’t be lying here ROFLMAO… Ah, to be immortalized forever as a complete ass…

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