Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
To ‘wrack’ means to ruin or destroy; it’s related to ‘wreck’. To ‘rack’ means to torture someone (esp. on the rack), or to literally or metaphorically stretch and strain something as if on the rack.
Which is the original form of ‘nerve-(w)racking’ or ‘to (w)rack one’s brain’?
Either one makes sense in either context. If something is nerve-wracking, it’s destroying one’s nerves; if it’s nerve-racking, said nerves are being strained. Racking one’s brain would mean to stretch or strain it to the limits of endurance; wracking one’s brain would mean thinking so hard that the brain is wrecked.
I suspect that in each case, one is the original form and the other is the eggcorn, and the correct forms may be different.
The OED cites both “nerve-racking” and “nerve-wracking.” The earliest citation for the former is drawn from a Percy Bysshe Shelley letter of 1812; the earliest for the latter is from 1909. So “nerve-wracking” might be an eggcorn from a historical perspective. But these days, Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives us the green light for either form: “Nerve-wracking is an established variant of nerve-racking.”
Thanks! I wonder how many historical eggcorns can be confirmed. I’d define them as usages that started out incorrect but are accepted today by authorities such as dictionaries.
“Wrack,” “rack”—how about “wreck”? This is a quote from one of my students’ reports on a concert: “I know from experience that doing a solo is nerve wrecking.” From an 18-year-old’s perspective, this word makes more sense than either of the other options!
One dictionary definition of wrack is “wreck.” And, another definition is “rack.” Surely these words have different etymologies, but if one can simply replace a word by another word that allegedly defines it, then it must not be an eggcorn. Right? Well, almost… I would point out that proper usage is largely defined by context. If you find the context where it doesn’t make sense to replace “wrack” with “wreck” (or “rack”) then you almost have an eggcorn—because you still have to contend with the possibility of a misspelling. To resolve this, you might seek an example with strong contextual clues.
Last edited by jorkel (2006-11-13 12:45:05)
I’ve always understood “rack my brain” in the sense of “racking pool balls”. That is, you’ve thoroughly gathered,shaken up everything and put it all back in order to be sure that you haven’t missed something.
Given that both “nerve-racking” and “nerve-wracking” appear to be legitimate, this may be another case of what I’ve called a stealth eggcorn. In effect, the imagery may change, but the spelling remains fixed. It isn’t until someone like booboo comes along to explain his interpretation of the imagery that the paradigm shift becomes apparent. For another example of a stealth eggcorn see the posting of “faster and looser.”
Last edited by jorkel (2007-04-11 22:14:12)
Good example, jorkel. That’s probably what has gone on here. I will also not drop certain eggcorns from my vocabulary. Since “playing fast and loose with the facts” conveys sloppiness as a result of hurriedness, it is a usefull eggcorn in that the message conveyed is the same as the message received…. Damn, I’m part of the reason for the destruction of our language. Oh well, it was a Frankenstein’s monster when it was delivered to me, anyway!