rap / rap sheet

The sense of rap meaning a blow or strike is probably echoic in origin and dates to the 14th century. From the poem Alisaunder of Macedoine, written sometime between 1340-70:

To riden into the route rappes to deale.
(To ride into the crowd, raps to deal.)

The verb appears slightly later. From William Langland’s Piers Plowman of 1377:

Kynges & knigtes shulde...Riden and rappe down in reumes aboute.
(Kings and knights should...ride and rap all around down in realms.)

The term rap, meaning a criminal charge—often a false one—comes from the sense meaning a blow or strike. The word appears in the phrase get the rap as early as 1865. In this sense it refers to the punishment of a crime or action and comes from the sense of the word meaning a blow or strike. To get the rap is to receive a blow. From the Atlantic Monthly, March 1865:

He who has the bad taste to meddle with the caprices of believers...gets the rap and the orders of dismissal.

The sense of rap meaning the crime itself appears in publication in 1903—although it undoubtedly was used in thieves’ cant earlier than this. From Hutchins Hapgood’s Autobiography of a Thief from that year:

“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.”

Some connect this criminal sense of rap with the sense meaning a counterfeit or false coin because criminal charges are sometimes false (i.e., bum rap). Swift first uses this sense in 1724 in The Drapier Letters:

Copper halfpence or farthings...have been for some time very scarce, and many counterfeits passed about under the name of raps.

This sense is archaic, dying out in the 19th century. It is, however, probably unrelated to the sense of a criminal charge. The use of bum in front of the latter to indicate a false charge indicates that a rap is not necessarily false.

The rap sheet is a term for any listing of a person’s past criminal charges and convictions. This phrase dates to at least 1960. From the Washington Post of 3 December of that year:

You will not find violence on his rap sheet.

Some have used rap as an acronym for record of arrests and prosecutions, but while you can find this in police manuals and forms, it is a “backronym” and not the origin of the term.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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