Q: I’ve always assumed that “rap” in its speaking sense was derived from “rapport,” but dictionaries offer only talking or conversing as a definition, and almost no indication of the etymology. Am I right about the origin?
A: The use of “rap” in the sense of talking in an easy, familiar, and frank way may very well have been influenced by “rapport.” But “rap” had nothing to do with conversation when it first appeared in Middle English.
It was originally a noun meaning “a heavy or severe blow from a weapon,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the earliest OED example, the weapons are stones:
“Þai gun anoþer fiȝt & stones to gider þrewe; Gode rappes for þe nones Þai ȝauen wiþ þe stones” (“They began another fight and threw stones at each other; Good raps for the nonce they gave with the stones”). From Roland and Vernagu, circa 1330, a medieval romance about Charlemagne’s conquest of Spain and Roland’s battle with the Saracen Vernagu.
A verb meaning to strike someone forcefully appeared a couple of decades later in this OED citation: “Mony a mannes hed foro þe body he rappeþ” (“Many a man’s head from the body he rappeth”). From The Seege or Batayle of Troye, an anonymous romance believed written around 1350 or earlier.
The OED says the verb “rap” probably came from the noun, which is thought to be “an imitative or expressive formation.” In other words, “rap” means what it sounds like. The dictionary notes similar imitative words in other Germanic languages: rapp (Norwegian), rapp (Swedish), and rap (Danish).
Over the years, according to Oxford, the hitting sense of the noun and verb weakened. The verb came to mean “to strike (a person or thing) in a sharp, usually relatively light, manner,” while the noun meant “a sharp, but usually relatively light, stroke with a stick, etc.”
Getting back to your question, the OED says the verb “rap” took on a speech sense in the mid-16th century, when the phrase “rap out” meant “to utter (words, speech, etc.) sharply or suddenly” or “to swear (an oath) vigorously.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1541 letter by Sir Thomas Wyatt, an English politician and poet:
“I am wonte some tyme to rappe owte an othe in an erneste tawlke.” From Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1963), by Kenneth Muir. (Wyatt, who is said to have introduced the sonnet to English literature, was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London for a rumored affair with Anne Boleyn.)
The noun “rap” took on a similar sense in the 18th century. The OED’s first citation is from a 1787 letter by the antiquarian Joseph Ritson: “I shall be most glad of my Lords arrival if it were only for the raps you promise me.” From Letters of Joseph Ritson (1833), edited by his nephew Joseph Frank. (Ritson is better known for his 1795 compilation of the Robin Hood legend.)
Finally, in the 20th century, the verb took on an informal sense in American English that the OED defines as “to talk or chat in an easy or discursive manner.”
Oxford, an etymological dictionary, describes this usage as “probably influenced by rapport n. in later use.” Two standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and Longman, suggest that it may have been influenced by “repartee.”
The earliest OED citation for the American usage is from a collection of criminal slang: “ ‘Rap’ means to speak. If you ‘rap’ to a man you speak to him or recognize him.” From a lexicon of criminal jargon in the book How to Be a Detective (1909), by F. H. Tillotson, a Pinkerton’s detective.
A couple of decades later, the usage appeared in a short story by Damon Runyon: “I wish Moosh a hello, and he never raps to me but only bows, and takes my hat.” From “Madame La Gimp,” published in the October 1929 issue of Cosmopolitan.
And a few decades after that, it showed up as “rapping” in the writings of Eldridge Cleaver: “In point of fact he is funny and very glib, and I dig rapping (talking) with him.” From a letter Cleaver wrote on Sept. 19, 1965, from Folsom State Prison in California and included in his memoir Soul on Ice (1968). It’s interesting that Cleaver felt it necessary to include a parenthetical definition of “rapping.”
Meanwhile, says the OED, the noun “rap” took on the sense of “a verbal display, esp. one intended to impress. Hence: improvised dialogue; banter, ‘spiel’; an instance of this.” The dictionary’s first example is from “All Through the Night,” a short story by Nelson Algren in the April 1957 issue of Playboy:
“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?” (An expanded version of the story appeared later as “Watch Out for Daddy.”)
The next Oxford example is from a 1965 soul song originally performed by the C.O.D.’s: “His rap is strong, with lots of fame / When the girls see him coming they tighten up their game.” From “Michael (the Lover),” written by Larry Brownlee, the Chicago group’s lead singer.
And here’s an OED citation from The Politics of Ecstasy (1966), a collection of essays and lectures by Timothy Leary: “He started a three-hour rap about energy, electronics, drugs, politics, the nature of God and the place of man in the divine system.”
The word “rap” has had many meanings over the years: a bum rap, a spirit’s rapping, a rap on the knuckles, and of course rap music.
It’s notable that the use of “rap” in music is descended from the conversational meanings of the word, especially the “verbal display” sense mentioned above.
The OED has two definitions of “rap” as used in music—one for a performance or a work, and one for the genre itself. Both, like the “verbal display” meaning, are labeled “originally U.S. colloquial.”
In the earliest usage, dating from the late 1970s, “rap” means “a performance in which lyrics (typically rhyming and sometimes improvised) are spoken rhythmically over a strong background beat.” Here the word can also mean “a rap song” or “a set of rap lyrics,” Oxford says.
This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “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.” From Billboard magazine, May 5, 1979.
Soon after, the OED says, “rap” came to mean “a genre of popular music in which lyrics (typically rhyming and sometimes improvised) are spoken rhythmically, and usually rapidly, over an instrumental backing which has a strong background beat and often features samples.”
And here’s Oxford’s earliest use of that sense of the word: “Rap isn’t simply a male monopoly as Blondie, Angie B and Cheryl rap to the shuffle boogie beat of the Sugarhill Gang band.” From the Boston Globe, April 10, 1980.