I love it when the comments to these blog posts prompt another discussion. That’s the case this week, when I’ve been thinking about one commenter’s response to the list I compiled from Work + Money’s “impeccable speech” recommendations. The original list included advice to say nerve-wracking and not nerve-wrecking. I classified the distinction as one wherein the original word (in this case, wracking) has so fallen into disuse that one can’t blame language innovators of any age for replacing it with a more familiar term (wrecking).
As one commenter observed, “If we’re being strict … it should be nerve-racking.”
Good point! Percy Bysshe Shelley coined the phrase in an 1812 letter to a friend saying he is glad to be away from “the nerve-racking and spirit-quelling metropolis.” The image, of course, is of one’s nerves being stretched upon a rack, that medieval instrument of torture. It’s an image echoed by a similar complaint, that one’s nerves might be stretched thin as wire.
Metaphorical racking isn’t confined to the nerves. One’s wit or brains have been racked since 1583, when William Byrd advised, “Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies.” Joints are racked, as are souls and nations; they are racked, moreover, by God’s judgment, fever, jealousy, the length of hours, and various other metaphorical torture devices.
But here’s the thing. They are also wracked. The Oxford English Dictionary defines wrack variously as “punishment, vengeance, damage, disaster, ruin,” etc. As a verb, it’s seen as an alternative spelling of wreak, with examples like “the utter wracking … of the holy lambes of Christ,” from 1642. But couldn’t that just as easily be “the utter racking” of those lambs? (Rack of lamb, anyone?) In the OED’s various definitions of rack, we also find references to injuring, damaging, and punishing. And even racking examples, like Robert Burns’s “Let ... crabbed names an’ stories wrack us,” are actually spelled with that initial w.
Add to this confusion the area of meaning jointly occupied by wrack and wreck, and you have a brain-racking wreck of spelling and definition that wreaks disaster on anyone who tries to draw completely clear distinctions. When Shakespeare’s Mortimer says, in Henry VI,
Euen like a man new haled from the Wrack,
So fare my Limbes with long Imprisonment,
it’s hard to say if he means a man relieved from being stretched on a torture device, a man saved from a drowned ship, or a man saved from vengeance represented by the dungeon.
All of which makes me wonder: What are we doing with those w’s in the first place? Yes, there is some difference between wrack and rack, but nothing that context wouldn’t supply. (Ditto other wr homophones, like wrap and rap, write and rite, wring and ring.) Unlike the potential to aspirate the “silent” h in where or rhubarb, the w in these words is entirely silent. As Anatoly Lieberman of Oxford University Press has observed, trying to sort out the origin of some wr words (his example is wrap) is devilish business. But where we have some evidence, it seems that, like the g in gnaw and the k in knee, the w in wrack was once pronounced — and still is, according to some, in Scots Doric dialect. German cognates either pronounce the w, as in the German noun Wrack (“wreck” or “wreckage”) or drop it, as in reissen, the etymological source of write. But we have left these w’s “fossilized” and available for any persnickety gradgrind to use as a club with which to beat those ignorant business interns over the head.
It racks wrecks messes with my soul.
P.S. To follow up on my post last week about "/s,” the symbol for sarcasm, I can’t help noting the consequences just in for MSNBC commentator Sam Seder, whose sarcastic tweet apparently provided such fodder for those taking it at face value that he has now lost his job.