Racking my Brain

Writing yesterday’s post, I came to a point where I wanted to use the phrase racking their brain. A few words before I got to the point where I had to type it though, I paused: was it wracking their brain?

I’ve never been sure how to spell it, and it’s not something I often have to write, so I never had to look it up. At least until yesterday anyway, so to satisfy all our curiosity, here’s the answer…

They’re both correct.

That’s always the answer, isn’t it? Though if you want to be strict, one of the two is better. First of all, if you’re looking for a noun, a place to hang your coat or hat, it’s rack. But if you’re looking for a verb, it gets trickier.

To rack probably comes from the Middle Dutch recken, meaning to stretch. This is where we get the name of the rack, the medieval torture device. Wrack comes from the Middle English wrak, meaning shipwreck. Purists argue that as rack is therefore associated with strain and stress, we should use it in cases where we have such feelings, such as when we’re struggling to think of something, e.g. racking our brains, or being racked with pain.

As wrack is associated with destruction, on the other hand, it’s better to use it in phrases with such associations, e.g. This place has gone to wrack and ruin.

And those are pretty good guidelines for me. But if you find it hard to remember which one’s which, or if it’s hard to separate these not-entirely distinct general concepts, don’t worry. It doesn’t really matter which one you use. If you go looking for examples, you’ll find people use them quite interchangeably, so there’s no point in trying to insist on a particular rule. It might be simplest just to use rack, as you’re more likely to use the phrase rack my brain than any others featuring (w)rack.

But if you’re really attached to that W, that’s fine too, and it might give your writing an antique charm. Just don’t waste too much time racking your brains over which word to use.

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