Stories behind Words: rack and ruinPosted by Michael Rundell on November 13, 2013
Today’s post was requested by one of our readers, Caroline Batchelder, who asked us to tell the story behind the expression go to rack and ruin.
There is a line in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1677) which goes:
And now all Heav’n Had gone to wrack, with ruins overspred.
Wrack, meaning damage, devastation or destruction, is a word that goes all the way back to Old English (it is first cited in the 10th century). In Milton’s poem, wrack is closely associated with ruin, but there is plenty of evidence for the word being used on its own, as in this quotation from the 19th century Scottish writer Walter Scott:
When he hoisted his standard black, Before him was battle, behind him wrack.
But the ‘younger’ form, rack (which first appears at the end of the 16th century), almost always occurs as part of the fixed expression “rack and ruin” – a form of reduplication (like spick and span or kith and kin) which gives it added emphasis.
Individually, both wrack and rack have died out (at least in this older meaning), but when used in combination with ruin, both are alive and well. Surprisingly (to me, at any rate), wrack and ruin is not that much less common than rack and ruin: our corpus has 57 instances in all, of which 22 favour the wrack spelling. The phrase is usually prefaced by “go to” but “fall (in)to” is fairly common, too, and there are occasional variations such as a village hall which is “rescued from wrack and ruin thanks to a cash injection”.
Going to rack and ruin is something that mostly happens to houses, palaces, or cities, and sometimes to farms, fields, and gardens. It is generally a gradual process, a consequence of neglect:
The Patti Pavilion … is a lovely venue down on the seafront, being left to slowly decay into rack and ruin.
Here was a home gone to rack and ruin … an air of mustiness and decay, dust everywhere.
But it occasionally happens to people or societies, too, and in this case it can either refer to financial ruin (the derivatives market that wrought such wrack and ruin to the global economy), or to a decline into moral degeneracy (his account of a foolish young rake going to rack and ruin).
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(W)rack is such a rich word. I was immediately reminded of Prospero’s speech in the Tempest about the cloud-capped towers that vanish and leave not a (w)rack behind. The image here could be that of damage and destruction, but in fact it is a reference to another old meaning (though not as old as the rack and ruin one): A bank of cloud, fog, or mist; a wisp of cloud or vapour. But wrack also – appropriately for the play – meant a shipwreck, or items from a shipwreck, as well as a type of seaweed. I wonder how many of these meanings would have been in the minds of spectators at the time…