The definition of nerve-wracking is the same as the definition of nerve-racking. Although the original spelling had no “W,” both variants have been part of English vocabulary since the 1800’s. Both “wrack” and “rack” came into the Old English language by way of Proto-Germanic roots; however, “wrack” and “rack” did not originate from the same root word.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the adjective “nerve-racking” first appeared in 1812, as a compound of two preexisting words “nerve” and “rack”. “Nerve-wracking” dates from 1867, as a combination of “nerve” and “wrack”. Nerve is a noun derived from the Proto-Indo-European root (s)neu-, “tendon, sinew.” That evolved through Latin (nervus) and Old French (nerf) to join the English lexicon as “nerve” in the late 1300’s.
The verb “wrack” derives from the Proto-Germanic root wreg-, meaning “to push, shove, drive.” Before being used as a verb, “wrack” served as an English noun referring to a shipwreck. The Online Etymology Dictionary points out that, “Wrack, wreck, rack and wretch were utterly tangled in spelling and somewhat in sense in Middle and early modern English.” From these indistinguishable spellings, we have inherited a sense of confusion around whether to use nerve-racking or nerve-wracking.
“Rack” originated with the Proto-Germanic root rak-, meaning “to move in a straight line.” The word meant “to stretch out for drying” and “to torture on the rack” in the early 1400’s. By the 1580’s, it meant any number of pains. So the word “nerve-racking” means something like “painful to the nerves,” whereas “nerve-wracking” would mean “wrecking the nerves.” Both variants make sense, but the –rack- spelling predates the other variant and is normally preferred.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “nerve-racking” as an adjective, meaning “extremely trying on the nerves.” The dictionary provides “nerve-wracking” as a variant spelling.
“Nerve,” used in this context, refers to “any of the filamentous bands of nervous tissue that connect parts of the nervous system with the other organs, conduct nerve impulses, and are made up of axons and dendrites together with protective and supportive structures.” Through our nervous system, we are able to feel sensations such as pain.
According to Thesaurus.com, synonyms for nerve-racking include:
Merriam-Webster lists antonyms for nerve-racking, including:
Other Words and Phrases
The poet John Milton included the phrase “…Gone to wrack, with ruin overspred” in his epic poem Paradise Lost. His use of “wrack” indicates that he intended the word to mean wreckage. “Gone to wrack and ruin” has become a cliché that both American and British English-speakers use to describe something dilapidated and decayed. Some writers use the spelling variant “rack” in this phrase, but we recommend sticking to “wreck,” as it’s written in Paradise Lost.
“Racking my brain” is an idiom, and it refers to the experience of trying very hard to think of something or remember something. Typically, people select the rack- spelling variant for this usage. This makes sense in that the speaker stretches his or her brain in an uncomfortable way by trying to remember, the same way a body would stretch on a rack. That said, one could conceivably “wreck” one’s brain by overthinking, too. Perhaps that’s why you can spot this idiom written with both spellings.
Another idiom, “racked with pain,” introduces the same quandary. You can imagine a pain-wrecked person, but you can just as easily picture a pain-tortured figure. Most editors would accept either variant as correct. Still, you may encounter a grammar enthusiast who feels strongly about the rack- spelling.
A “nervous wreck” describes someone very nervous or worried about something. Luckily, there’s no debate over this spelling. Neither “wrack” nor “rack” is acceptable.
The rack was a torture device used in the England dating from the 1420’s. Encyclopædia Britannica explains, “The victim’s ankles and wrists were secured by ropes that passed around axles near the head and the foot of the rack. When the axles were turned slowly by poles inserted into sockets, the victim’s hip, knee, shoulder, and elbow joints would be dislocated.”
The phrase nerve-racking first appeared in correspondence written by Percy Bysshe Shelley. In 1812, the poet Shelley wrote of the “nerve-racking and spirit-quelling metropolis.” There’s no telling why “nerve-racking” caught on, while “spirit-quelling” has been long forgotten. For whatever reason, people love to describe a stressful event as a nerve-racking (or nerve-wracking) experience.
The Words in Context
“‘We had to make a really quick decision regarding the future of our son, so it was quite nerve-wracking,’ Kenneth Horsey Sr. said.”
—Orlando Sentinel, “Kentucky OL Kenneth Horsey Overcomes Heart Surgery…”
“A trip to the hospital can be nerve-racking on its own, and if you can’t see the face of your care provider because they are wearing a face mask, that can just add to the anxiety.”
—CBS Denver, “Program Aims To Ease Nerves Of Hospital-Goers…”
“‘It was a nerve-wracking few weeks and definitely an emotional roller coaster but I’m glad to be here.’”
—The Guardian, “Australian Surfer Tyler Wright Claims Historic…”
“It was a nerve-racking realization for Pascal, who thought he’d be able to hide behind the slickness of a cold and calculating finance guy. But it was a call that he ended up loving in the end.”
—San Francisco Chronicle, “Pedro Pascal Dons Different Armor…”