Mea Culpa: Rack and ruin

Matters of style and usage in last week’s Independent, compiled by Susanna Richards

Saturday 14 May 2022 21:30 BST
The Happy Mondays, blithely indifferent to the principles of grammar
The Happy Mondays, blithely indifferent to the principles of grammar (Getty)

Our perplexing insistence on using the wrong word prompted one of our regular readers, Roger Thetford, to inform us that we had once again said “wracked” when we meant “racked”.

He is right, of course. The two words are frequently used interchangeably, but as Roger suggests, each spelling, with its corresponding etymology, makes sense in a specific context. Thus, when we want to suggest that the government is being pulled this way and that by various scandals, “racked” – from rakken, early 15th century, meaning “to stretch out” – is the obvious choice, while something that has been destroyed might be better described as “wracked”, which probably comes from the Middle Dutch word wrak (late 14th century) meaning “wreck”. I (w)reckon that covers it.

Lest is more: In an editorial that talked about freedom of expression, we quoted someone saying that companies could find themselves in a position in which they had no choice but to take down online content that might be “perfectly harmless, less they face sanctions, penalties and even personal arrests for getting it wrong”. That should be “lest” – a lovely old word that is described by the Oxford dictionary as a “negative particle of intention or purpose”, which, though it sounds quite exciting, is another way of saying it doesn’t really have a category. It is always used in the subjunctive, as in the well-known idiom “lest we forget”, which comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

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