or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, August 08, 2005

Stretched Out

I try to ignore the irrelevant in the news--I don't care about Britney Spears' impending offspring!--but I was really glad to see that those Russian submariners were freed alive from their underwater tomb yesterday. They were down there for a long time, and being trapped like that and awaiting death is just about the worst thing I can imagine.

The Associated Press wire story contains the following paragraph:

British Royal Navy Commander Ian Riches said the most nerve-racking point in the operation was when the Russian submarine broke free from the cables and disappeared from the camera's sight before surfacing about 4:26 p.m.

Now, I had always thought that "nerve-wracking" was correct and that "nerve-racking" was some sort of corruption of the phrase, but guess what? It's the other way around.

"Rack" and "wrack" have no etymological connection, the former apparently emerging from Dutch "rec", "framework", and the latter being a variant of "wreck". (And they're about the same age, too; they both showed up in English in the second half of the sixteenth century.) Since a rack is a torture device and a wreck is the destruction of something, grammarians have tried to enforce a wall between the two words: something that is torturous, say "nerve-racking", uses "rack", and something that is destroyed, as in the phrase "wrack and ruin", uses "wrack".

Naturally, everyday users of the language beg to differ, and the two words have been used more or less randomly in this idiomatic sense ever since. "Nerve-racking", "she racked her brains", and "wrack and ruin" are still considered the correct forms of these phrases, but after four hundred years of near-interchangeability, it would be hard to say that their alternates are wrong.

While I'm on the subject, though: "torturous" means "cruelly painful", from "torture", and the word it is often confused with, "tortuous", means "twisty", as it's related to the word "torque", from the Latin "torquere", "to twist". These words are not interchangeable and never will be if I have anything to say about it.


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