Nerve-Wracking Or Nerve-Racking?

We have two terms, which are nerve wracking and nerve-racking. You might come across them both. Or you have just seen and used one. Do you know that while “nerve-wracking” seems to be more popular and widely accepted, the Grammar Nazis only accept the term “nerve-racking” as the original term with the correct spelling?

Are these two phrases are used to describe the same thing? Which one of them is correct in term of spelling? Can you use them alternatively? Scroll down to find out.


What does “Nerve-racking” mean?

“Nerve-racking” is an adjective. It describes a state of mind at which you are extremely nervous or anxious.

The term “nerve-racking” was used in a letter written by Shelley, a poet, in the 19th century. In his letter, he described that he was no longer feel nerve-racking. The original verb- “rack”, has a lot of meaning. Some of which is to torture or cause pain, especially to a part of your body. Hence, the idiom “rack my brain” which has been used since as far as the 17th century.

“Nerve-wracking” is not an original term. It is considered misspell of the term “nerve-racking” at first. Then, many editors and dictionaries list “nerve-wracking” as a word with variant spelling to “nerve-racking”. In the 1900s, in many newspapers such as The New York Times, the phrase “nerve-wracking” stared to be used. This word has the same meaning as “nerve-racking” and it is widely used nowadays.

Why do people argue about the use of “nerve-racking” and “nerve-wracking”?

While “nerve-racking” and “nerve-wracking” has the same meaning, describing your feelings when you are nervous and anxious. However, the verbs “wrack” and “rack” which these two adjectives are formed from have different meanings.

  • To “Rack” is to gain, collect, gather or accumulate something. This verb also has another meaning, which is to cause pain or torture something.
  • To “Wrack” is to destroy or damage something. Its synonym is “wreck”. This word is an old English word, which ceases to be popular in daily conversational English.
  • While these two words have different meanings, they seem to have the same tone and idea. Both of them refer to doing something unpleasant and causing damage to the other items and even people.
  • Both of these words are pronounced in the same way. The letter “w” is silent when you say the whole word “wrack”, making it the same as “rack”. Hence, “nerve-racking” is pronounced in the same way as “nerve-wracking”.

Not only do people argue about “nerve-racking” and “nerve-wracking”, they also argue about “rack my brain” and “wrack my brain”. As you can see, both of the verbs are totally different in meanings. They only share the same pronunciations and tones. However, just like “nerve-wracking” and “nerve-racking”, these two phrases are both acceptable. “Wrack my brain” is considered as a variant in spelling of “rack my brain”. Nevertheless, “rack my brain” is the original and more correct form of spelling. They both refer to the action of trying or attempting to remember something.

Still, as I mentioned above, while both of the spellings are acceptable, “nerve-racking” is the original phrase. It was invented first and is still used today. Hence, “nerve-racking” is the preferred spelling.

While “nerve-racking” and “nerve-wracking” as well as “rack my brain” and “wrack my brain” are interchangeable, some phrases and idioms only use the verb “rack” instead of “wrack”. These verbs are not interchangeable. Here are a few examples:

  • Go to rack and ruin: Something goes to rack and ruin when it starts to deteriorate and becomes ruined.
  • On the rack: When anyone is on the rack, he or she is very stressful and the level of stress intensifies quickly.
  • Rack something up: When someone racks something up, he or she starts to add or accumulate something.

Synonyms of “Nerve-racking”

There are a lot of words and phrases which you can use instead of the term “nerve-racking”.

  • If you want to stress a certain feeling which is negative, you can use words such as “distressing” or “stressful”.
  • In case you want to mention the intensity of the feeling, you can use words such as “gut-wrenching” or “harrowing”.

Overall, while these two verbs “rack” and “wrack” have different meanings, they share the same ideas. Sometimes, they are interchangeable and sometimes, they are not. Some trustworthy dictionaries list the word “nerve-wracking” as the acceptable variant of the word “nerve-racking”. Hence, there is no reason why you should stop using the word “nerve-wracking” if you like to use it or have been using it for a long time. If you want to be on the safe side when you communicate with strict traditionalists, or if you aim for a perfect use of English, you should go for “nerve-racking” instead.

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