Q: Why is a person who rapes called a “rapist” and not a “raper”?
A: Someone who rapes can be called a “raper” as well as a “rapist,” though “rapist” is much more common and slightly older.
You can find both terms in several standard dictionaries. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines a “raper” as “one who rapes,” and a “rapist” as “one who commits rape.”
The two terms showed up within a few years of each other in the 19th century, with “-er” and “-ist” suffixes added to the much older verb “rape,” which appeared in the 14th century.
The “-er” and “-ist” suffixes can be added to verbs to form agent nouns—nouns that refer to someone who does something.
In the past, the “-er” suffix was generally added to words of Germanic origin and the “-ist” suffix to words of Latin or Greek origin. However, the use of the two suffixes to form nouns from existing words hasn’t been consistent in modern times.
So why is “rapist” more common today than “raper”? Perhaps the usage was influenced by “racist” or other negative “-ist” words, such as “antagonist,” “apologist,” “bigamist,” “dogmatist,” “egotist,” “hedonist,” “imperialist,” “materialist,” “misogynist,” “opportunist,” “plagiarist,” “separatist,” and “sexist.”
On the other hand, many “-ist” words are positive (“altruist,” “idealist,” “humanist,” “optimist,” “rationalist,” “realist,” etc.), and many more are neutral (“archeologist,” “cyclist,” “dramatist,” “etymologist,” “journalist,” “linguist,” “lyricist,” “philologist,” “physicist,” “scientist,” “ventriloquist,” and so on).
The earliest example for “rapist” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Feb. 27, 1869, issue of the Dallas Weekly Herald. We’ve expanded the citation for context:
“The Charleston (S.C.) News says their Reconstruction Constitution, when finished, had a plank from Ohio, many a plank from Vermont, and a whole board beam from Africa the blest. Our Texas Convention had a whole raft of such lumber, including Bryant, the rapist.”
The dictionary’s first example for “raper” is from another Texas periodical, the Dec. 12, 1878, issue of the Galveston Daily News:
“The President has pardoned two mail robbers and commuted the sentences of two murderers and one raper from death to imprisonment for life.”
The most recent OED example for “rapist” is from the Aug. 18, 2007, Toronto Star: “It’s tough to judge love songs and social commentary from a convicted rapist.”
And Oxford‘s latest citation for “raper” is from the Oct. 14, 1992, Tucson (AZ) Weekly: “An election year that already looked like a showdown between the tree-huggers and the land-rapers.”
A somewhat earlier sexual example in the OED is from “The Shadow on the Wall,” a short story by the British writer L. P. Hartley:
“Some women locked theirs [bedroom doors] even when there was no threat of a nightly visitant, burglar, marauder, raper, or such-like.” (From Mrs. Carteret Receives, and Other Stories, 1971.)
When the verb “rape” first showed up in English in the late 1300s, it meant to take something by force, according to Oxford.
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the English verb comes from rapere, classical Latin for to seize by force. The OED describes this derivation as probable.
The earliest Oxford citation is from “Redde Rationem Villicationis Tue,” a sermon preached in 1388 by Thomas Wimbledon at Paul’s Cross, an open-air pulpit on the grounds of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was on the site of the present St. Paul’s in London:
“Rauenes fisches haueþ sum mesure. Whan þey hungreþ, þey rapeþ; but whan þey beþ fulle, þey spareþ” (“Ravenous fish have some measure. When they hungereth, they rapeth; but when they are full, they spareth”). The Latin title of the sermon, which means “Give an Account of Thy Stewardship,” is from the Gospel of Luke 16:2.
In the 1400s the verb took on the sense of carrying someone off by force, especially a woman, and in the 1500s it came to mean to “violate (a person) sexually; to commit rape against (a person); esp. (of a man) to force (a woman) to have sexual intercourse against her will,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first example for the verb “rape” used in the modern sexual sense is from a 1574 translation of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, apocryphal scripture written in Hebrew and Greek:
“The Sichemites … Raped Dina … Persecuted straungers … Rauished their wiues.”
(In the book of Genesis, Sichem, also spelled Shechem, rapes Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Most English translations of Genesis 34 use such words as “humble,” “defile,” or “humiliate,” rather than “rape.”)