Going to something and ruin

On ADS-L on Saturday, Jon Lighter mused about X and ruin (especially (go) to X and ruin) in the OED. There are three entries in the OED for different items X, glossed roughly as ‘destruction’, in such examples: wrack, rack, and wreck. The historical relationships between these items are very complex, but a few parts of it are clear.

The noun wrack ‘destruction’ is related to the noun wreck (and the verb wreck). Then there’s the noun rack, as in the torture instrument, which is etymologically tied to a ‘stretch’ root; cf. the verb rack in such idioms rack one’s brains and nerve-racking.

So far so good. But there’s been plenty of traffic back and forth between wrack and rack. The OED (draft revision of June 2008) says that rack in rack and ruin is a variant of wrack, which is historically earlier. It has cites for to wrack in the relevant sense from 1412, and for to wrack and ruin from 1577; to rack in the relevant sense is attested from 1599, to rack and ruin from 1706. That is, the wrack of destruction got there first, but there’s been variation for a very long time. (In the other direction, wrack also impinged on rack‘s territory.)

Meanwhile, to wreck ‘to destruction’ appeared in between wrack and rack (in about 1547). The OED has only one cite for wreck and ruin (from 1877), though Lighter unearthed one from H. G. Wells, Twelve Stories and a Dream (London, Macmillan, 1903), p. 297:

I…left all those things to wreck and ruin just to save a remnant at least of my life.

Usage on the web these days has to X and ruin with roughly comparable frequencies (in the hundreds of thousands of raw ghits) for the three variants, though rack is in the lead (if you put any faith at all in raw ghit numbers). The variant wreck is probably gaining on the others, because, for most modern speakers (who have rack/wrack ‘destruction’ virtually only in the X and ruin idioms) it makes more sense than the others.

Current dictionary practice seems to be to list only the rack variant, or to list it first, with wrack as an alternative (that’s what NOAD2 does, and the American Heritage Idioms Dictionary). Nobody mentions the wreck variant, much less recommends it.

Some commentators insist on historical fidelity, however. Paul Brians, for instance, in Common Errors:

If you are racked with pain or you feel nerve-racked, you are feeling as if you were being stretched on that Medieval instrument of torture, the rack. You rack your brains when you stretch them vigorously to search out the truth like a torturer. “Wrack” has to do with ruinous accidents, so if the stock market is wracked by rumors of imminent recession, it’s wrecked. If things are wrecked, they go to “wrack and ruin.” (link)

Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says much the same, while explicitly labeling both rack and ruin and wreck and ruin as errors for wrack and ruin.

In the face of such disorder, the eggcorn database hasn’t attempted an account of the X and ruin variants. We do have an entry for wreck havoc (for wreak havoc) and one for wreckless (for reckless), but who would take on X and ruin, except to pursue the program of One Right Way? MWDEU advises:

Probably the most sensible attitude would be to ignore the etymologies of rack and wrack (which, of course, is exactly what most people do) and regard them simply as spelling variants of one word.

As for the wreck variant, it looks like an eggcorn that is rapidly moving into the mainstream — a development that is taking the word back to its roots.

7 Responses to “Going to something and ruin”

  1. Erin Says:

    Wow, I had always thought it was “wrack my brains” and “nerve-wracking”. I’m sure I’ve been seeing it in print all this time, but the truth of that is always hard to pin down.

    I gotta say, the stretching metaphor doesn’t really do it for me. I’d always thought of wracking my brains as overturning the furniture and pulling books off top shelves to try to find an idea. Certainly it’s not torture to do that.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Erin: please, please, don’t think I’m telling you that you’re wrong and should change. I am, in fact, a wrack my brains but rack and ruin person myself, and I don’t see why anyone should care about that.

  3. Erin Says:

    Oh no, I don’t! I just didn’t have any idea that this was the going advice from the prescriptivists. I try to keep up on such things, since I’m often put in the position (as linguists are) of telling people to disregard them.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Back to Erin: I can’t say that this is the going advice from prescriptivists, just from the two I looked at first (because they aren’t generally loony, though I often disagree with them, and because this material was literally to hand). Though I must say I was astonished to see such heavy dollops of the etymological fallacy.

  5. empty Says:

    I on the other hand used to think that the past tense of “wreak havoc” was “wrought havoc”, which it’s not. But wreak is etymologically related to work/wrought, and to wrack, right?

  6. Ann Burlingham Says:

    I think I learned “rack and ruin” from my mother’s favorite book, _Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard_, in which the farmer comes daily lamenting “Rack and ruin, rack and ruin!”

    But now I am racking my brain to recall what fictional character claims “Reck Not” as their (family?) motto. Not that that has anything to do with anything.

  7. Ann Burlingham Says:

    Ah, should have known it was from Georgette Heyer – in _Beauvallet_. As you were.

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