Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Elaine totally gets a bad rap among her co-workers, but she’s actually a very nice person when you get to know her.

Or is that a bad wrap? Maybe it’s a bad rep? What is the correct term to use in this context? Perhaps we should first start with a basic definition. A “bad rap” is a slang term, used mostly in North America, which refers to a person’s bad reputation. This judgement is typically viewed as being unjust or undeserved. Elaine’s not actually a bad person; she just has a reputation for being such.

But why would we use the term “rap” in this sense? It really has nothing to do with hip hop music (at least not directly). On a more intuitive level, a “bad rep” sounds more logical, as “rep” can be short for “reputation.” After all, shortened forms of words are very common among informal language. And while a “bad rep” can and has been used in greater frequency, the original term was a “bad rap.” You may have also heard the term a “bum” rap, which basically means the same thing.

The sense in which “rap” is used here is in reference to a criminal charge. You could say that Joey is being prosecuted on an aggravated assault rap. It can also refer to a punishment or reprimand for ill-doing of some kind, which could conceivably be related to the use of “rap” to mean a sharp blow. That would be like “rapping” on the door or the literal strikes a person would receive as physical punishment for crimes committed.

Today, a list of criminal offenses is colloquially called a person’s “rap sheet.” By extension, a child could have a “rap sheet” at school for getting into fights or causing trouble. You may hear about someone being in jail on a “bum rap,” meaning that they believe it was a false accusation and charge. This parallels the person who has an undeserved “bad rap” for whatever reason.

Have an idea for a future Grammar 101 post? Leave a comment below with whatever question you may have.