Word Choice: Rack vs. Wrack
  • 3-minute read
  • 5th October 2018

Word Choice: Rack vs. Wrack

Neither “rack” nor “wrack” is a common word these days. However, they are used in some common terms and phrases. And since they sound identical, it’s easy to get them mixed up. To avoid errors in your written work, then, check out our guide to using “rack” and “wrack” correctly.

Rack (Strain and Storage)

The more common word here is “rack.” It comes from a Middle Dutch word meaning “stretch out,” which makes sense when you know that one use of “rack” is a type of torture device:

He refused to confess even after a day on the rack.

People would use a “rack” to stretch their victims, so the word has since become associated with causing pain, strain, and distress.

rack-or-wrack
It doesn’t look fun.

We also see that sense of pain and distress in the verb form of this term:

His shoulder was racked with pain.

This is also the sense of “rack” we see in “nerve-racking,” which implies being mentally strained. Oddly, though, the idea of a wooden frame for stretching something also gave us a fairly innocent use of this term. In this case, it refers to a framework used for storing something:

Finally, put the cake on a wire rack until it is cool.

In case you were wondering, we would choose this kind of “rack” if we had to spend time on one.

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Wrack (An Old-Fashioned Word for “Wreck”)

“Wrack” comes from a Middle Dutch word meaning “shipwreck.” This link to destruction reflects how the word is still used today. For instance:

Clouds roiled in the storm-wracked skies.

The phrase “storm-wracked” here literally means “wrecked by a storm.” Likewise, you may see “wrack” used in the phrase “wrack and ruin,” which also refers to destruction.

Storm-wracked skies.
Storm-wracked skies.

However, “wrack” has commonly been confused with “rack,” especially in situations where “rack” means causing pain or distress. As such, “wrack” is often accepted as a variant spelling of the verb form of “rack.” For example, we can say “wracked with pain” as well as “racked with pain.”

But keep in mind that “rack” and “wrack” are only interchangeable when used as a verb. If you are referring to a torture device or a framework used for storage, “wrack” would be incorrect.

Rack or Wrack?

Most of the time, “rack” will be correct. However, “wrack” is now widely accepted as a variant spelling when used as a verb. And the traditional uses of these terms are as follows:

  • A “rack” is a torture device, so as a verb it usually means “torture” or “cause distress.” However, as a noun, a rack can also be a frame used for storage (e.g., a “spice rack”).
  • “Wrack” is an old-fashioned word for “wreck.” It is traditionally used to describe a shipwreck and associated with destruction.

Generally, the main place you will need “wrack” is in phrases like “wrack and ruin” and “storm-wracked.” The word “rack,” meanwhile, appears in terms like “nerve-racking.” If you need help making sure you’ve used these words correctly, get in touch today.

Comments (2)
Julian Koplen
31st May 2020 at 16:59
Shouldn't your verb in the lead sentence by "is" rather than "are?"
    Proofed
    1st June 2020 at 15:28
    You are right. Now corrected. Thanks.

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