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Racked up



"It can be nerve-racking at times, thinking in your head 'I've got to perform at my highest level, this is my one chance.' "...

"Despite her busy schedule, she chatted with me for upward of an hour, sounding more relaxed than the nerve-wracked portrayal of herself in her autobiographical comics." ...

I've wracked or racked my brain many times trying to decide which one is correct in context. I always have to look it up, and I'm still not sure I got it right.

Garner's Modern American Usage has no such doubts. It says confidently that the verb wrack means "to destroy utterly; to wreck. Rack means to torture or oppress. Wrack is also, and primarily, a noun meaning 'wreckage' or 'utter destruction'. The set phrases are to rack one's brains and wrack and ruin. The root meaning of brain-racking refers to stretching, hence to torture by stretching. ... As for the phrase wrack and ruin, it is sometimes erroneously written wreck and ruin ... A less common mangling of wrack and ruin is the homophonic rack and ruin. ... In sum, writers who aren't careful about these words will torture their readers and end up dashed on the rocks."

Easy for him to say. But Success With Words takes a more comfortably ambivalent approach: "The verb wrack means 'to inflict pain on (someone), cause agony to.'  This is a variant of rack, as in 'to stretch on the rack, torture.' Of the two spellings, rack is probably the commoner, but wrack is fully standard and is preferred by some in the figurative sense 'to cause pain and suffering to.' — The intensely patriotic Sherman loved the South ... but was emotionally wracked by the collapse of the Union." (Emphasis mine.) SWW goes on to say that the noun wrack, meaning "destruction," is "used chiefly in the phrase wrack and ruin, for which rack and ruin is the slightly commoner spelling." So according to at least one authority, either rack or wrack is OK, and I can stop worrying about it. I'll do so forthwith.

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