So often, words that look similar have no etymological ties at all. But wreak, wrack, wretch, rack, & wreck are similar-looking words that actually are kissing cousins.
In the late 1300s, wrack referred to the bits that float onto shore after a shipwreck. It probably came from the Old English word wræc, which meant misery or punishment. By the 1500s, wrack could be anything washed up on shore, including seaweed. This gave us the term wrack line.
The oft-combined words wrack & ruin appeared together in the 1400s. Though this term seems to have come from the original Old English word wræc, the spelling from the shipwreck meaning infiltrated people’s thinking, and voila! wrack & ruin.
These days shipwrecks aren’t so common. Car wrecks are another matter. The word wreck comes from that same Old English term meaning shipwreck.
And when it comes to wreaking havoc, what a surprise — that old word wræc, meaning misery or punishment, had a verb form which meant to avenge or punish. And that form morphed to become our modern word wreak.
Those unfortunate souls who were the targets of all that havoc-wreaking got their title from the same Old English root, & were known as wretches.
Another Old English form of wræc gave us the word rack (which initially referred to an instrument which stretched leather (think punish). By the 1400s that leather-stretcher had found another use: a device of torture. Probably because this device was a series of connected bars, rack also means a device to support or hold items, antlers, to achieve or add up (rack up), a framework for displaying clothing, (off the rack), & a bed or cot (hit the rack).
And many of you might remember one of the many scourges of 1960s home fashion known as rickrack. As it happens, rickrack came to English in the 1880s as a reduplication of the word rack — the sort of rack used to stretch leather or torture people. So, we were correct back in the ‘60s when we claimed rickrack was a torturous fashion concept.
Sorry for all the torture & punishment in this post — if you’ve got comments, leave them in the comment section.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymonline.com, Merriam-Webster.com, Sue's Beach art, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.
I write for teens & tweens, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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