I've long been fascinated by the interaction of law and culture, and so jumped at the chance to be one of the authors of Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions, due out in November. The rich histories behind phrases we law professors use every day, coupled with their tendency to pop up in today's headlines, is just plain fun. So I'm also very happy to get this chance to guest blog a bit and share some of those stories with readers of The Faculty Lounge.
I'll start with two related terms: "rap" and "rap sheet." The former started life meaning a blow to a person or sharp tap on an object. Over the centuries it developed a figurative meaning, and by the end of the 19th century to "get the rap" for something was well-established slang for getting the blame. The lingo of criminal world then adopted "rap," adding colorful variations. The New York Times in 1926 helpfully provided this translation of one meaning of "rap" for its readers: "When one is singled out from a line of suspects as the dick who slid with the ticktick, one is the victim of a 'rap.'"
"Rap sheet" came along later, but was based on the well-established sense of "rap" as a criminal charge. This straightforward history did not, however, prevent the establishment of a false etymology -- the belief that the "rap" in "rap sheet" is an acronym for "Record of Arrests and Prosecutions." It would make a logical acronym, like SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States).
Logical, but untrue. That version of "rap" sheet is another animal entirely: the backronym. While in a true acronym the phrase precedes the word, a backronym attributes a false back-story. "Golf," for example, did not come from "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden," nor does "cop" come from "constable on patrol." An enterprising computer programmer has even created a backronym generator. FACULTY, for example, becomes "Foolish Antiquarianism Clarification Unbecomingly Lateness Terrible Yelp," and LOUNGE is "Learn Old Unhallowed Neptunian Group Endowment." One computer-generated backronym for RAP is "Ridicule and Penetration."
Nevertheless, the fiction is becoming truth. A few states have actually formally adopted the phrase "Record of Arrest and Prosecution" and call the resulting records R.A.P. Sheets, converting slang into the official title for criminal history records and turning the simple, earthy "rap" into a pretentious series of initials. "Rattling Analyst Poster," anyone?