Rack - Encyclopedia


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RACK, an homonymous word of which the principal branches are the words meaning (I) a mass of cloud driving before the wind in the upper air, (2)(2) to draw off wine or other liquor from the lees, (3) a bar or framework of bars, (4) an instrument of torture. The etymology of (1) shows that it is ultimately to be connected with "wreck" and "wrack," drifted seaweed, and means that which is driven by or drifts with the wind; cf. Norw. rak, wreckage, refuse, Icel. reka, to drive, toss. In (2) the term seems to have come from the Gascon wine-trade, as Skeat (Etym. Dict., 1910) points out, and was adapted from Prov. arracar, to decant wine, rata, the stems and husks of grapes, dregs. Both (2) and (3) are in origin to be connected. The O. E. reccan and Ger. recken mean "to stretch," and so "rack" means something stretched out, a straight bar or rail, especially a toothed bar gearing with a cog-wheel, a framework of bars, as in the cradle of upright bars in which fodder can be placed for cattle, and the instrument of torture, which in Ger. is Recke or Rackbank. The "rack" for torture was an oblong frame of wood, slightly raised from the ground, having at one end a fixed bar to which the legs were fastened, and at the other a movable bar to which the hands were tied. By means of pulleys and levers this latter could be rolled on its own axis, thus straining the ropes till the sufferer's joints were dislocated. Its first employment in England is said to have been due to John Holland, 4th duke of Exeter, constable of the Tower in 1447, whence it was popularly known as "the Duke of Exeter's daughter." In 1628 the whole question of its legality was raised by the attempt of the privy council to rack John Felton, the assassin of the duke of Buckingham. This the judges resisted, unanimously declaring its use to be contrary to the laws of England.

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