I have seen all three forms of the term used interchangeably and am confused. Which one is correct? Is it dependent on the context? Is it okay to say, for instance,
"The wait is nerve-wracking"
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The correct spelling is : nerve-racking or nerve-wracking:
- extremely irritating, annoying, or trying: a nerve-racking day; a nerve-racking noise.
Nerve-wrecking is a less common variant, probably from a spelling mistake. See Ngram
- The first recorded use of nerve-racking is in a letter by the poet Shelley in 1812, telling his friend he is glad to be away from the "nerve-racking and spirit-quelling metropolis".
- But "rack" - from a family of English words to do with stretching - had long been used in connection with torture, and often applied to parts of the body. In Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) humanity's coming afflictions include "Joint-racking Rheums" while the expression "Racking your brains" goes back at least as far as 1680.
- In the early 20th Century "nerve-wracking" also began to appear - in the Times it was in an advert in 1905, and a 1910 news report on Peary's planned polar expedition. The New York Times wrote "the air of America is invigorating and nerve-wracking" in 1908.
- "Wrack" comes from another set of Germanic words with meanings shading from revenge into punishment and destruction, including "wreak" and "wreck".
- Some people prefer "nerve-wracking" because they associate it with wrecking - the wording "nervous wreck" is recorded as early as 1871.
- It was always likely that rack and wrack should overlap. Wr- at the start of a word has been hard to pronounce from the time when w began to sound in Old English as it does today.