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The word ratchet is all over Twitter. Some real examples from just now:

  • "All these ghetto ass ratchet ass girls at mchi are wearing these Santa hats, and they all claim to be Santa..."

  • "I was lookin ratchet in my workout pic but for you to make it a priority to talk about somebody's habit that u be sneakin & geekin to do"

  • "Yaassss finally getting ratchet tonight after being a good girl for a month 🙌"

The @lovihatibot Twitterbot routinely finds it in searches for "I love the word [X]" and "I hate the word [X]", in fact it's the 14th most loved word and 15th most hated word (presumably use in one category feeding the other).

Similarly it's the fifth most common in @favibot's searches for "[X] is my new favorite word".

What does ratchet mean?

Where does it come from and when was it first used?

Was there a single person or event which popularised it, and when was it?

Is it a "good"/positive word, or "bad"/negative, and has this changed in any way?

  • 1
    I've always kind of hoped it was a bastardisation of "rat-shit" – Brad Dec 19 '13 at 19:52
  • I was looking for something that answers all four points. Something more authoritative would be good too, as your number one (from UD's no. 3 most upvoted) primarily defines it as "n. type of socket wrench". The other is UD's number 45, with more downvotes than up. Both could be seen as cherry-picking from UD's 122 definitions for "wretched" explanations. – Hugo Apr 27 '14 at 8:02
  • I think you should offer a small bounty. I'd be interested in knowing more about this expression, especially after seeing @mplungjan has deleted his post. – Mari-Lou A Nov 24 '14 at 9:40
  • 1
    Excellent question! A couple of sources that might be useful: nymag.com/thecut/2013/04/… jezebel.com/… noisey.vice.com/en_uk/blog/… uk.eonline.com/news/445764/… – A E Nov 24 '14 at 17:00
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    With regard to your question to "when was it first used?" I note that ratchet does NOT appear in Geneva Smitherman, Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994), suggesting that the term in its current slang meaning was either local or nonexistent 20 years ago. – Sven Yargs Nov 24 '14 at 21:45
9
+500

When a slang word catches on, students of language often have a difficult time figuring out its meanings and origin. This, I suspect, is because it emerges not like Athene—a fully formed adult released from the mind of Zeus—but like several thousand frog eggs—similar in appearance to one another but bewildering in number and neither well defined nor mature.

Eventually usage of a slang term X will probably coalesce around one or a few more-or-less clearly understood meanings, but in the meantime the only reasonable way to answer questions such as “what does X mean?” is to identify as many of the ways in which the word is being used as you can.

Without attempting to be exhaustive, I took my frog egg search to the least professional-looking authority I could easily find—which turned out to be Caitlin Corsetti’s “Define That: Ratchet” blog post at Gurl.com—and then consulted not Ms. Corsetti but the commenters responding to her post. From them I learned the following things about ratchet.

What does 'ratchet' mean, and how is it pronounced?

  • Ratchet [is] used to describe someone means nasty, ghetto or trifling. —Janet

  • Ratchet also means a situation or process that is perceived to be deteriorating or changing steadily in a series of irreversible steps. It is used as a term for something low class or deteriorated. Similar to how we use the term ghetto. —NyxoftheNight

  • Ratchet means: ghetto, stupid, rediculous, cheap —selena

  • I have heard my teen-aged granddaughter use this word in reference to her own hair, and she was completely unable to define it or explain what she meant by it. All she could say was, You know, grandma, it’s just rachet! —cat

  • It’s just simply a mispronunciation of “wretched”. The same people that use it often describe a “ratchet girl” [as] someone that wears torn “stalkings”. —JBW

  • It is a pure homonym that has nothing to do with a ratchet wrench, or “wretched.” It means RAT SHIT. —Becky

  • The first time I asked someone for a definition for this slang, I was told it meant “A woman who’s only good for one thing — getting a nut off … like a ratchet.” —Scott Simpson

  • its not ratchet that people say its ratchid is what they say! two different words —lollipop

  • Racheted is what I keep hearing [people say] —acer

Where does it come from, when was it first used, and who or what popularized it?

  • It originated in the 17th century and is a lesser used meaning of the word that has evolved into a more contemporary meaning. —James

  • Ratchets been around since the XVIII c. annoying people with their terrible racket, so less fortunate husbands soon started to call it to their ghastly wives —moi même

  • It is a derivation of the two words “rat” and “shit” as in the situation is, person is, place is so bad it is as bad or worse than “rat shit.” Totally trash talk. —Lily Bear

  • I think its after nurse Ratched from one flew [over] the cuckoos nest. —carlsjr

  • The term came from Cedar Grove [in] the City of Shreveport Alabama. Popularized by the song, “Do Tha Ratchet” True origin was spun out of slurring the word WRETCHED Now has become a massively overused typo. —Matt

  • watch emanuel & philip hudsons she ratchet video —selena

Is it a "good"/positive word, or "bad"/negative, and has this changed in any way?

  • The current slang use of this word has a very nasty, biting undertone to it. The other comments in this thread alone support the connotations of being undesirable. —cat

  • About 20yrs ago I somehow caught a nickname (ratchet) due to my ability to fix or repair nearly anything. I understood It’s relation to my daily work and eventually I got used to it. I was told by a college girl I should never be ratchet, it completely through me off and I was simply looking at this girl as if she was crazy. —Adam Draughn


The experts above have spoken pretty clearly about what ratchet means, where it came from, and so on. I would only add that Emmanuel N Phillip Hudson uploaded their “Ratchet Girl Anthem” (cited by selena above) to YouTube twice (on January 16, 2012, and April 26, 2012) and that the two versions have accumulated a combined 56.1 million views. With regard to the mystery of the sudden popularity of ratchet, I think we may have a couple of major suspects (if not the actual perpetrators) here.

Lava House and Lil' Boosie's "Do tha Ratchet" (cited by Matt above) deserves some attention because it is considerably older than "Ratchet Girl Anthem." According to LyricWikia, it was released in 2006. The most frequently watched YouTube video for this song was posted on July 26, 2009, and has garnered an impressive 793,000 views despite being a static image accompanied by Lil' Boosie's audio track; still, 793,000 isn't 56.1 million.

As to whether ratchet is meant to be generally understood in a positive or a negative sense, that aspect of the term may well be in flux, just as everything else about it appears to be. In Lil' Boosie's world, ratchet is almost an environmental term: It applies to men (including LB himself) and to women, and it describes most of their doings in the neighborhood where he lives. In contrast, the Hudsons use ratchet specifically in connection with women and do not indicate any sympathy for anyone so described.

Speaking as a complete outsider, with no prior knowledge of ratchet as post–Jimmy Cliff slang, I have to say that the term as used by the Hudsons reminds me quite a bit of skanky, which derived from skank (“An unattractive woman; a malodorous woman; =SKAG,” according to Robert Chapman and Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition [1995]). Here is the Chapman & Kipfer entry for skanky:

skanky or skank-o-rama adj 1980s teenagers fr black Nasty; repellant; =GROTTY, SCUZZY, TRASHY: The girls were somewhat skanky, with lank hair and rotten posture—Richard Price/ ...you moved, the earth moved. Skank-o-rama—Sassy

Both skanky and ratchet (as used in the Hudsons’ comical YouTube video, anyway) are not gender-neutral terms, though none of the Gurl.com experts expressly makes this point about ratchet.

It will be interesting to see whether the gender connection that "Ratchet Girl Anthem" promotes influences the long-term sense of the word, notwithstanding Lil' Boosie's earlier, more broadly applicable sense of the term. The crucial factor here, probably, is the proportion of users who base their knowledge of the term on the Hudsons' song versus the proportion of those who adopted the term as it was used in the older Shreveport, Louisiana, tradition.

  • Several [sic]s are missing :) But super answer. Now I get what "ratchet" means. But how is it pronounced? – Mari-Lou A Nov 30 '14 at 5:26
  • @Mari-Lou A: The pronunciation I hear most often rhymes "ratchet" with "hatch it," but some people must pronounce it "ratchid" (rhyming with "batch id") or that spelling wouldn't have emerged in connection with this slang word. And again, I live in an out-of-the-loop micro-environment where ratchet refers to "socket wrench" and nothing else. – Sven Yargs Nov 30 '14 at 6:50
  • A methodologically excellent approach to finding an answer to this question. (Entertaining too.) +1 – Erik Kowal Dec 1 '14 at 5:22
  • @Hugo: It looks to me as though TRomano's UGK reference from 1992 wins the prize for the earliest occurrence of ratchet relevant to current usage. (The song seems to use "ratchet ass" and later "skanky ass" to mean virtually the same thing.) I can't figure out how to use the Rap Stats tool that you pointed out, but I'd be interested to know what you find if you've mastered it. Having ventured into the very noisy ratchet echo chamber (which begins at 1996 and Mr. Mandigo), I must say again that TRomano's citation of UGK constitutes a real breakthrough, unlike my Gurls.com inquiry. Nice job! – Sven Yargs Dec 1 '14 at 9:56
  • @SvenYargs: Unfortunately Rap Stats doesn't let you click through to results like with Google Ngrams. // The UGK reference is really good. The word has an entry in the Right Rhymes hip-hop slang dictionary that quotes UGK as the earliest for the adjective. – Hugo Dec 1 '14 at 12:05
4

I have a 1992 use of "ratchet-ass" in the lyrics I'm So Bad from an album by UGK. I will post only a snippet of it here:

... get your ratchet ass out my fuckin do'
Cause I'm Pimp C, I put a bitch in her place

Reader discretion is advised.

P.S. I wonder if it's a variant of raggedyass ?

NORA: I better wait outside for Joan, 'fore you make me go in the kitchen and get me something an' there be blood all ova' these raggedyass flo's!

Source: Johnson Publishing Company, 1968

  • Now that is interesting, and quite a bit earlier than the suggested late-1990s emergence from Shreveport, Louisiana. UGK were from Port Arthur, Texas, not a million miles from Shreveport (PA is 200 miles due south). Although this 1992 is more like the later "ghetto" sense than an earlier dance. // Rap Stats suggests a 1991 use, and fairly level use until around 2000 when presumably the Shreveport // Here's the lyrics: genius.com/Ugk-im-so-bad-lyrics – Hugo Dec 1 '14 at 8:53
  • Oh, and The Right Rhymes hip-hop slang dictionary cites this use as the earliest meaning for "disorderly, inappropriate". I wonder what Rap Stats' 1991 is? – Hugo Dec 1 '14 at 9:01
  • This is definitely the earliest specific match anyone has brought up—and it use ratchet in the dirty/skanky sense that seems to be widely in vogue now. The Wikipedia article for UGK ("Underground Kingz") says that they are from Port Arthur, Texas, which is practically on the western border of Louisiana. Shreveport is 208 miles almost due north of Port Arthur, so it's not just a hop, skip and a jump up U.S. Highway 96; but it is still fairly close (by Texas standards). – Sven Yargs Dec 1 '14 at 9:33
  • Well done on the find! I'm not one to be easily shocked but the, erm, lyrics are really really ratchet. – Mari-Lou A Dec 2 '14 at 9:46
  • @Mari-Lou A: Raunchy stuff. – TRomano Dec 2 '14 at 13:51
3

From the article "Who You Callin Ratchet?" found on The Root:

What arguably started as a Southern rap dance at the turn of the century and then expanded to describe a relatively positive expression of energy has now become a worthy rival to the word "ghetto." It is most typically used to describe outrageously uncivilized behaviors and music -- often with women as the butt of the joke.

[...] "Then, over the years, the term evolved into something to describe a type of behavior or way of life."

The origin of the dance and term is largely given to Shreveport, La. (aka "Ratchet City"), where the word has been in circulation since the late 1990s.

"Ratchet" is a word that was intended to describe someone who is "all the way turnt up," "buck," "crunk," "hyphy" -- take your pick. It's now plumbing the depths of "Hood Gone Wild" waters but may prove to be buoyant enough to swing back in a positive direction with the passage of time.

  • 1
    That article looks very useful, and thus I want to upvote this answer; but the quote was originally presented without any formatting to indicate that it was a quote, and there was no link to the source, and thus I want to downvote this answer for borderline-plagiarism. :/ – Marthaª Nov 24 '14 at 21:25
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    I upvoted on two grounds: (1) Pablo is a new user and simply may not have figured out how to use angle bracket lead-ins to produce box text formatting; (2) Marthaª did it for him—and since I can't vote for her, his now well-formatted answer gets the upvote. – Sven Yargs Nov 24 '14 at 21:32
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According to this article titled "Ratchet does not come from Wretched – Slang Word Origin History", it does indeed come from ratchet the mechanical device.

It comes from the Mr. Mandigo song "Do the ratchet", "The Ratchet" in this case being a dance whose motion is similar to the action of a ratchet.

1

The most obvious (IMO) origin would be to compare it to the most common ratcheting device, i.e. a car jack. The action (and result) of using this device is to "pump it up". Extrapolating all the nuances of the phrase "Pumped up" and substituting "ratchet" seems to be congruous.

(Physically elevated) "Ratchet bootie"

(Impressively imposing) "Ratchet in my workout pic"... "Ratchet new hairdo"

(Reaching a new level) "Ratchet party"

Also, going back to the "car jack" analogy, the common street sight of an automobile on a jack in the midst of being pilfered could evoke: "ghetto", "deteriorating situation", "degraded", "incapacitated", etc.

My husband was a street kid and he often uses the phrase "jacked-up" to mean "destroyed". It seems that this expression and "ratchet" would share similar origins.

0

Ratchet is a synonym of "crazy" so it can be both positive and negative depending on the context.

A person could say, "It is so ratchet that you won the lottery" and that is positive. Or they could say "Could you believe X's inappropriate behavior? They are too ratchet," which is clearly negative.

0

Go on youtube and type in "Johnny too bad" by various Jamaican artists,most notably Jimmy Cliff and the excellent Slickers versions as well as another great one by our own Taj Mahall. The term "ratchet" is used in this song for a pistol. My assumption: to ratchet something loose from someone. The tool of choice for a thug,gangster or "jackboy". Makes sense to me. I know its straying from the topic but the term has been around down in the islands and in Jamaican communities here for decades. Ive heard it used in Miami as far back as the mid 80s.

  • 1
    I thought "ratchet" was Jamaican English for a kind of wrench (or "spanner"), and that Johnny Too Bad carried this tool in his waist so that he could conveniently pull it out and hit people with it. Too literal? – Sven Yargs Sep 16 '14 at 7:08
  • With lyrics: youtube.com/watch?v=oa9_blPhhT8 – A E Nov 27 '14 at 11:04

protected by Community Sep 16 '14 at 7:41

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