This is an English expression which has evolved over time and has been in use for over 400 years. It is most commonly found in literary works and is less frequently used in day-to-day conversation.
This expression is used to denote that something has been completely destroyed. It can be used in a literal sense such as after a natural disaster when a whole area of land has been destroyed but it can also be used in a less physical sense such as when a plan goes very wrong.
Initially it was thought that this expression derived in some way from another English expression, “to rack one’s brains.” However it is now believed that the use of the word “rack” in this expression is an old variant of the current word “wreck” rather than the medieval torture device.
The first recorded use of the expression dates to the year 1548 in a sermon made by Ephraim Udall which reads ”the flocke goeth to wrecke and vtterly perisheth.” In 1577 this phrase then evolved into “wreck and ruin” in Henry Bulle’s translation of Luther’s Commentarie upon the fiftene psalmes.
The current expression “rack and ruin” was first used a short time after this in the year 1599. It can be found in The history of Corpus Christi College and reads “In the mean season the College shall goe to rack and ruin.”
An example of this expression can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil which reads “the tension of soul in misfortune which communicates to it its energy, its shuddering in view of rack and ruin, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, and exploiting misfortune, and whatever depth, mystery, disguise, spirit, artifice, or greatness has been bestowed upon the soul—has it not been bestowed through suffering?”