The sense of rap meaning a blow or strike is probably echoic in origin. Much like tap and clap, it represents the sound of the blow. The earliest citation in both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Middle English Dictionary is from the poem Roland and Vernagu, found in the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS 19.2.1), which was copied c. 1330. The passage depicts a battle between the knight Roland and the giant Vernagu:
Þai gun anoþer fiȝt,
And stones togider þrewe.
Gode rappes for þe nones,
Þai ȝauen wiþ þe stones,
That sete swithe sore.
(They began another fight, and together threw stones. For the moment, they gave good raps with the stones very violently in that place.)
The verb appears a few decades later.
This basic sense of a blow has spawned three metaphorical senses that are in common use today. (There are lots of different senses, but I’m focusing on these three that are probably of the most interest.) A rap can also be a criminal charge or accusation, a discussion, or a genre of music.
The sense of rap, meaning a criminal charge comes from the sense of a blow or strike. Hugh Tootell, under the pseudonym Charles Dodd, used rap over the knuckles metaphorically in his 1715 The Secret Policy of the English Society of Jesus:
His Holiness himself [...]acquitted the appealing Clergy in a special Brief, and reprimanded the Arch Priest [...] You also, reverend Father, have a sensible rap over the Knuckles in the same Brief.
And several decades later we have the lone rap being used metaphorically to mean a rebuke. From a 1777 use published by the American Pioneer (Cincinnati) in 1843:
The post master general [...] has lately had a rap, which I hope will have a good effect.
By the twentieth century, the term had moved into North American criminal slang. A rap could be a prison sentence, as used by C. L. Cullen in his 1900 Tales of Ex-Tanks:
It was my first rap at Milwaukee.
Or in the 1935 Ellery Queen novel The Spanish Cape Mystery:
You’re in a tough spot. Do you know what the rap for blackmail is in this State?
But it could also mean a criminal accusation or charge, as in Hutchins Hapgood’s 1903 Autobiography of a Thief:
“What makes you look so glum?” [...]
“Turned out of police court this morning.”
“What was the rap, Mike?”
“I’m looking too respectable. They asked me where I got the clothes.”
The term rap sheet, meaning a police record of a person’s criminal arrests and charges dates to at least 1949. Some incorrectly believe this use is from an acronym for record of arrests and prosecutions, but while you can find this etymology in police manuals and forms, it is a backronym and not the origin of rap.
Another false belief is that this criminal sense of rap comes from counterfeiting and carries a connotation of the criminal charge being false. Rap did once refer to a counterfeit coin. This slang sense probably comes from the Irish rapaire. These counterfeit coins were used as currency in eighteenth-century Ireland due to a scarcity of copper. Jonathan Swift refers to them in his 1724 Letter to the Shop-Keepers of Ireland:
Copper halfpence or farthings [...] have been for some time very scarce, and many counterfeits passed about under the name of raps.
But this sense was dying out in the nineteenth century when the criminal sense of rap developed. The connection to the counterfeiting sense is due to the phrase bum rap, meaning a false criminal charge, but the use of bum indicates that a rap is not necessarily, or even usually, false.
The sense of to rap, meaning to speak arose in the sixteenth century, originally meaning to speak sharply, quickly, or vigorously, as if one’s words were blows. It was commonly used in reference to swearing an oath. Thomas Wyatt writes in 1541:
I am wonte some tyme to rappe owte an othe in an erneste tawlke.
By the eighteenth century it was being used in criminal slang, meaning to give evidence, often to inform on another. In 1728 criminal James Dalton wrote a Genuine Narrative of this crimes in which he said:
The Whores are our Safe-guard; [...] they’ll rap for us.
And Francis Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue has:
TO RAP. To take a false oath; also to curse. He rapped out a volley; i. e. he swore a whole volley of oaths.
This criminal slang ties in with and may have influenced the previously discussed sense of a criminal charge.
Parallel to this criminal sense, the word also developed a sense of ordinary speech or conversation. Joseph Ritson writes in a 1787 letter:
I shall be most glad of my Lords arrival if it were only for the raps you promise me.
And R. Blakeborough’s 1898 Wit, Character, Folklore and Custom of the North Riding of Yorkshire has:
Lets ‘ev a pipe an’ a bit o’ rap.
By the beginning of the twentieth century this sense had crossed the Atlantic and became embedded in African-American speech. F. H. Tillotson’s 1909 How to Be a Detective explains:
“Rap” means to speak. If you “rap” to a man you speak to him or recognize him.
In African-American use the verb could also mean to impress via a verbal display. Nelson Algren writes in Playboy in 1957:
People like to say a pimp is a crime and a shame. But who’s the one friend a hustling broad’s got? [...] Who puts down that real soft rap only you can hear to let you know your time is up and is everything alright in there Baby?
In 1965, Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the Black Panther Party, used rap to mean casual conversation in a letter:
In point of fact he is funny and very glib, and I dig rapping (talking) with him.
Today, this use of the word comes across as dated, hopelessly associated with the counterculture of the 1960s.
The musical sense of rap flows out of the speech sense, a reference to the rhythmic delivery of the lyrics. The earliest citation in the OED is from the 5 May 1979 issue of Billboard:
Young DJs like Eddie Cheeba, DJ Hollywood, DJ Starski, and Kurtis Blow are attracting followings with their slick raps [...] Tapes of Hollywood’s raps are considered valuable commodities by young blacks.
He generally works with Cool DJ AJ, who does not rap but is a master of B-beats.
In September of that year the Sugarhill Gang released their single Rapper’s Delight, which had the lyrics:
Now, what you hear is not a test—I’m rappin’ to the beat,
And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet.
The Sugarhill Gang is often credited with coining this particular sense of rap, but while they were one of the first to use it in published form, and perhaps were the first to use the word in song lyrics, they were simply using a word that was familiar in their musical circle.
By the following year rap had become the name for the musical genre.
Middle English Dictionary, 2001, s. v. rappe (n.); rappen (v.(1))
Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2008, s. v. rap, n.2; rap, v.2; rap, n.4
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton