Simanaitis Says

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RACKETEERING ETYMOLOGIES

THE NEWS CONCERNING Trump, Giuliani, omertà, getting thrown under the bus, and other mob-speak got me wondering how the nice French sports racquet evolved into something as sordid as racketeering. Here are etymological tidbits on this and other strange linguistic transformations.

Omertà. In mob-speak, omertà is the code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities. For current examples, Google “Mulvaney,” “Pence,” and “Pompeo.” But see also “flip.”

Above, Michael Cohen, personal lawyer to Donald J, Trump, 2006–2018. Image from usatoday.com. Below, Rudy Giuliani, personal lawyer to Donald J. Trump, 2018–so far. Image from rawstory.com.


In a linguistic flip, the Italian word omertà means “humility.” That the word made the leap to today’s meaning is related to concrete shoes.

Racquet. This French spelling is an accepted version of “racket,” what Merriam-Webster defines in its first entry as “a lightweight implement that consists of a netting (as of nylon) stretched in a usually oval open frame with a handle attached and that is used for striking the ball or shuttlecock in various games (such as tennis, racquets, or badminton).”

From left to right, a racket for tennis, racquetball, and badminton. Image from Merriam-Webster.

By the way, we know a perfectly well-brought-up English friend who pronounced the place name Badminton as “babbington.”

Origins. The French racquet comes from Middle French racquette, by way of Medieval Latin rasceta from Arabic رسغ, rusgh, “wrist.”

With regard to Arabic, I recall reading about a survey in which 56 percent of Americans objected to teaching Arabic numerals in schools. Yes; like 0, 1, 2, 3.

Racket as a Bad Thing. Merriam-Webster doesn’t get around to racket as a bad thing until the third part of its second entry: “a fraudulent scheme, enterprise, or activity, a usually illegitimate enterprise made workable by bribery or intimidation.”

Ukraine has been inhabited since 32,000 B.C. Long known as The Ukraine, it celebrated its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union by dropping “The.”

OED References. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, devotes several of its microprinted columns to racket: an arcane dice game, a bat, a military engine for casting stones, a snowshoe, a bird’s tail feathers, a noisy disturbance, and, finally, slang for “a trick, dodge, scheme, game, line of business or action.”

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about the dice game in 1374: “Canstow playen raket, to and fro….” Racket’s first pejorative use in English came in 1812. In 1851, Henry Mayhew quoted one of his sources saying, “I did wear a shovel hat when the Bishop of London was the racket.”

On Racketeering. The Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo describes racketeering as “The operation of any illegal business; crime as an organized means of livelihood.” It then cites a primary-source example: “Racketeering gets you peanuts today. Your partner squeals on you. The D.A. can’t be reached (bribed), and your shyster (lawyer) sells you out. A thief can’t make a living no more.”

But maybe he can become president. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

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