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In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien writes:

The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.

He is obviously enumerating various sort of fireworks. All those words, or their pieces, are readily findable in the OED save for backarappers alone. So I am betting it is a real word, just not listed yet.

Since the word is not in one of the Professor’s invented languages — it looks like it’s English — what then is a “backarapper”, and what is its etymology?

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when I was young my elders often used this word after a violent bout of wind. –  kennymac Feb 3 at 9:06
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3 Answers

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OED blog

Backarapper is Birmingham and Midlands slang for a kind of firework. A post on the OxfordWords blog about Gandalf's Particularly excellent fireworks includes:

A colleague has pointed that the backarapper isn’t only confined to Middle Earth. They’re described in a glossary of the Warwickshire dialect from 1896 as ‘a firework so folded that the charges in the folds detonate in succession’. You can read all about them, Tolkien’s other vocabulary, and his time on the Oxford English Dictionary, in Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner’s The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP, 2006).


Before 1896

I found some citations earlier than G.F. Northall’s Warwickshire Word-book (1896).

The Christian World Magazine of November, 1866 describes Guy Fawkes' night of 20-30 years earlier, such fireworks not being allowed at the time of writing:

It is scarely necessary to remark that the fifth of November commemorates the well-known "Gunpowder Plot"... Years ago, the observances of this day were of far more importance than now they are... Then came the grand display fireworks at night, for which all the little ones say up, and the "letting off" of which was the grand achievement of the evening; -- wheels, squibs, serpents, rockets, and Roman candles, to say nothing of back-rappers that leaped, about like fiery dragons, to the infinite satisfaction of the lads, and the discomfiture, real or pretended, of the girls. Twenty or thirty years ago even, children used to look forward with eager delight to the fifth of November: now the ancient festivities are discontinued by the authorities, it being forbidden under certain penalties to let of fireworks or make bonfires in any public place.

A July 1860 entry in Visit of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to the British North American Provines and United States in the Year 1860. Compiled from the Public Journals by Robert Cellem (1861) says:

As on the previous evening, the juvenile portion of the population indulged themselves ad libitum in the use of crackers, back-rappers, serpents, and squibs. How so many got into Newfoundland is a problem no one I have questioned is able to solve.


After 1896

Here's some more recent citations.

Two years after Northall's dictionary, Joseph Wright's The English Dialect Dictionary (1898) includes:

BACKRACKETS, sA. ;>/. Glo. bae k-raekits.J Fire- works ; cf. backrapper. Glo.' Samson ketched dree hundred foxes, and tied squibs and backrackets on their tails, Roger Ploughman's Second Visit to London. Back, adv, + rackets. Cp. G. raket, a kind of firework, a rocket; Du. raket; orig. the name for the stiff cartridge cylinder; see Sanders. BACKRAPPER, sA. War. fbEek-raepa/r). War.2 Backrapper, a firework so folded that the charges in the folds detonate in succession ; War.^ Back-rapper, the firework known as a cracker.

The cited Roger Ploughman's Second Visit to London is really Roger Plowman's Second Excursion to London and c.1878.

A 1948 snippet of Queen's Medical Magazine, Volumes 41-45, by Birmingham Medical and Dental Schools includes:

Then there is Number 12's "hollow" cough, which is like a hand grenade gone off in the depths of Wookey Hole. Number l's stock in trade is a low moaning cough reminding one of the haunted church at midnight. There is also the "loose" cough, the "dry" cough, the "acking corf," the "backarapper" cough and several others.

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Thanks, Hugo. That’s a lot of fine work. –  tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 20:23
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The Encyclopedia of Arda lists backarapper as

a firework made from firecrackers folded together to explode one after the other (a dialect word from the English Midlands)

It's also defined as backrapper in G.F. Northall’s Warwickshire Word-book from 1896, available from Google Books:

Warwickshire Word-Book

No etymology is given in either case, but it’s feasible that the word is onomatopoeic, along with being folded back upon itself.


Backarappers are mentioned — with that definition — in the Oxford Dictionaries Blog where a citation is made of The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP, 2006), a work not available online.

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From The distaff muse: an anthology of poetry written by women (1949) - We must have rockets, of course, and again Golden Rain was safer than Catherine Wheels, (These sometimes refused to turn, wouldn't burn, If the nail was too close to the ladder-end holding them.) But always the crackers — (Backarappers they were called)... –  FumbleFingers Jan 3 '13 at 17:00
    
So it sounds like those annoying strings of firecrackers that are tied together and go go off BANG BANG BANG BANG to the delight of children and bane of dogs. I think we just call them firecrackers, or maybe strings of firecrackers. –  tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 17:46
    
You can read all of G.F. Northall’s Warwickshire Word-book (1896) here. –  Hugo Jan 3 '13 at 20:10
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A backarapper is a firecracker with several folds to create multiple explosions in quick succession. It is a "Brummie" term (a Brummie being a person from Birmingham, England, where Tolkien spent much of his life), and the word itself is presumably derived from the back-to-back "rapping" sound it creates. Alternate names for backarappers include "backrackets" and "jumping jacks".

In a somewhat unrelated note, "gamgee" is a Brummie term for cotton wool.

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