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The meaning and origin of the expression: Rack your brains

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Rack your brains

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Meaning

To rack one's brains is to strain mentally to recall or to understand something.

Origin

rack your brainsThe rack was a mediaeval torture device. The crude but, one presumes, effective racks often tore the victim's limbs from their bodies. It isn't surprising that 'rack' was adopted as a verb meaning to cause pain and anguish. Shakespeare was one of many authors who used this; for example, from Twelfth Night, 1602:

"How haue the houres rack'd, and tortur'd me, Since I haue lost thee?"

The term was called on whenever something or someone was under particular stress and all manner of things were said to be 'racked'; for example, in the Prymmer or boke of priuate prayer nedeful to be vsed of al faythfull Christians, 1553 there's a reference to the racking, that is, increasing, of land rent:

"They may not racke and stretche oute the rentes of their houses"

The first recorded use of this being specifically applied to brains is in William Beveridge's Sermons, circa 1680:

"They rack their brains... they hazard their lives for it."

The same idea was used by the composer William Byrd in 1583 when he wrote:

"Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies."