Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Wrack or Rack?

I have racked my brain to find someway to prevent the nation from going to wrack and ruin.

Or should that be “I have wracked my brain” to find some way to prevent the nation from going to “rack and ruin”?

Etymologists seem to waffle a bit on this one, with more than one so-called expert suggesting that either rack or wrack might be correct. 

Rack in the sense of “racking one’s brain” means to “torture,” in reference to the medieval practice of inflicting pain on recalcitrant heretics by placing them on a movable rack pulling their limbs in different directions. Oooh, that would hurt. The word has its origin in Old English reccan, meaning to “stretch.”

Bryan Garner, in his always reliable Dictionary of Modern American Usage is unequivocal. “The idiom is rack one’s brains,” he writes. “The root meaning of rack is to stretch, hence to torture by stretching.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference to this usage is in a 1583 poem by Edward Farr, in which he writes, “Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies.” 

Some etymologists, however, suggest the idiom is “wrack—with a ‘w”—one’s brain,” that is to “destroy” it or “ruin it completely,” which is the meaning of wrack, stemming from the Old English wræc, or “misery, punishment.” That is clearly the reference in the phrase “wrack and ruin,” in which wrack means “utter destruction. 

The term “going to wreck” was used as early as 1548 by the clergyman Ephraim Udall, who wrote in a sermon, “The flocke goeth to wrecke and utterly perisheth.”  By 1577 the phrase “wrack and ruin” was used by Henry Bull in his translation of Luther’s Commentarie upon the fifteen psalms: “Whiles all things seeme to fall to wracke and ruine.”

But there has always been confusion about the word.  In 1599 historian Thomas Fowler in The History of Corpus Christi College wrote, "In the mean season the College shall goe to rack and ruin."

Maybe it would be better simply to think very hard about a way keep the country from going to the dogs.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou went to the dogs years ago and can’t get back.
       I’m sittin’ here frettin’ and cursin’ and stewin'
       While the country is goin’ to rack and to ruin.
       I’m waitin’ to see the next message on Twitter
       From the feverish brain of the orange-colored critter.
       Do you think it might be a good deal on Trivago
       For a really cheap rate at that swank Mar-a-Lago? 

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