I’ve always been vaguely aware of raper as an alternative to rapist, as a vaguely wrong sounding, possibly archaic formulation.

Nowadays, it’s most often heard from speakers of English as a second language, for whom the construction is slightly irregular compared to other similar verbs. But I’m also aware that I've seen the -er version of the word in older texts.

Well, today I happened to be curious while sitting at a computer and fed it into an ngram, and...

Raper V. Rapist ngram

That is not the sort of graph I expected to see; the use of -ist appears seemingly out of nowhere after over a century of dormancy in the mid 20th century, and by the mid 1960s has skyrocketed in usage. Now I would expect an increase in general at this time due to the rise of feminism and increased attention to sexual violence, but I'm curious as to the specific choice of the -ist form over the -er variant; particularly in light of the sharp increase in the latters usage during World War II in 1940, presumably connected to growing reports in the west of the Japanese atrocities at Nanking.

Is there any documentation or research explaining how the -ist formulation came to be dominant in current usage? What could be the reason for that sudden shift?

  • Feel free to commission a study to determine the answer, if it is determinable. There are a lot of variables that need to be addressed. May 6, 2014 at 2:12
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    (One notable caveat w/r/t the ngram; 'Raper' is also an uncommon, though not unheard of surname, held by a few individuals of historic note. I'd expect the spike in the early 19th century, for example, to be related to the work and research of Henry Raper. Still, the synchronicity of the pattern with periods of conflict indicates that the usage is mostly in line with the contemporary.) May 6, 2014 at 2:12
  • @JohnLawler I was hoping that some scholarship existed and that someone might be familiar with it. If there isn't... well, I suppose I have something I can look at should I ever go back for an advanced degree... May 6, 2014 at 2:13
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    It is possible the term change is reflected/discussed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) manuals published in 1952 (DSM-I)and 1968 (DSM-II). If so, the American Psychiatric Association classification would explain the term change in medical, and legal use.
    – Third News
    May 6, 2014 at 3:00
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    I clicked on the first page of "raper", 1986-2008, and found this google.com/… Every single Raper, is a surname, note the capital letter. The first page, 1955-1985 yielded again Raper google.com/….
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 6, 2014 at 6:03

3 Answers 3


An explanation for the shift in usage between raper and rapist as shown in the OP's Ngram Viewer

If one reads the results in the OP's Google Ngram link the first three pages for 1700-1776 refer to names of authors, Raper, all spelled with a capital letter. Similar results appear for Google books dated 1777-1957. The first three pages, again, all refer to people named Raper, spelled with a capital letter.

In order to find an early references to raper (spelled with a lowercase letter) and not the result of some OCR error (paper, taper and even super were among those I found) one has to start looking through books published in the 20th century. One of the earliest instance of "the raper" I found was in a poem written in 1914 by Arturo Giovannitti, entitled The Walker

I, who have never killed, think like the murderer; I, who have never stolen, reason like the thief; I think, reason, wish, hope, doubt, wait like the hired assassin
the embezzler, the forger, the counterfeiter, the incestuous,
the raper, the drunkard, the prostitute, the pimp, I, I who
used to think of love and life and flowers and song and
beauty and the ideal.

While I agree that raper and rapist mean the same thing, and there are instances of usage of the former; rapist with its suffix -ist, is and has always been the much preferred one. The instances of raper which clearly mean someone who forces another to have sexual intercourse are limited and not nearly as frequent as suggested by the OP's original Ngram chart but are more accurately reflected in the one below, dated 1900-2008.

enter image description here

Finally, one more graph showing the importance of a capital letter. Does this result suggest that the term, Raper, is much preferred? No, it doesn't.

enter image description here

When OCR Goes Bad: Google’s Ngram Viewer & The F-Word
Example of an OCR error super misread as raper
The Walker, a poem by Arturo Giovannitti
Ngram Viewer a raper/a rapist/the raper/the rapist/rapers/rapists

  • Could you combine your answers or delete one of them please?
    – Kit Z. Fox
    May 6, 2014 at 23:51
  • Why? @KitFox. I have seen other users in the past who have posted two answers before me. This answer is more detailed, whereas the first is brief, to the point. This was a reply to comments to explain why the graph was relevant. I didn't want to clutter that post. What have I done wrong?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2014 at 0:01
  • raper can be used, even today, where a rhyme is needed. Listen to the Rolling Stones' Midnight Rambler: "I'm called the hit-and-run raper in anger..." where Mick and Keith wanted something to rhyme with anger.
    – Phil Perry
    May 7, 2014 at 13:19
  • Because having two answers that are essentially identical allows people to vote for you twice, which is unfair. Two different answers is still dubious, but more acceptable.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    May 7, 2014 at 14:02
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    Undeleted post.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 5, 2015 at 9:30

Technically, one who forces another to have sexual intercourse (with reference to a specific occasion or incident) should be raper, not rapist. Many dictionaries agree on this usage.

On the other hand, rapist would be a habitual offender, again, technically.

However, Raper is an honorable surname.

Raper is an Ango-Saxon name. The name was originally given to a rope-maker.

The spelling variations under which the name Raper has appeared include Raper, Wraper, Rapper, Rapier and others. First found in Sussex.
(c) Swyrich Corp.

Naturally, it is to be avoided in a negative connotation.

  • @Mari-LouA Again, it's not, mostly. It better not be.
    – Kris
    May 6, 2014 at 7:38
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    I have the same view as this answer, drawn from the usual difference between the suffixes -er and -ist: while both can refer to someone who does something repeatedly, -ist has a stronger connotation of doing it habitually.
    – Brilliand
    May 6, 2014 at 16:52

I am going to take a logical stab at this.

You have raper and rapist and then rapper and rapping.

In the mid 70s to early 80s the beginning of the word rapper started being used. Grandmaster Flash started getting big in the mid 70s. His sampling style was known simply as rapping.

enter image description here

Knowing the media world, they shy away from using wording that correlates closely with common slang (I am assuming rapper was considered slang then). Since I have never heard of a rapper go by rappist this makes a lot of sense for the word change during that time period.

The charting of the word rapper, rap, and rapping lags a little bit behind but you have to factor in that it wasn't a huge thing right away and it is certainly not a genre that has a lot of mention in books comparatively.

enter image description here

Now however therapists everywhere have been vehemently opposed to the word rapist and would like to go back to using raper.

enter image description here

Sean Connery has taken this conversation to a new level.

  • "therapists everywhere have been vehemently opposed to the word rapist" -- hmm, could that have anything to do with poor quality word processors hyphenating "therapist" as "the- rapist"? As well as people mispronouncing it as "the rapist"?
    – Phil Perry
    May 7, 2014 at 13:22
  • Do you have any idea why our comments have been deleted? According to SE standards, comments should be flagged if 1) rude or offensive 2) not constructive 3) obsolete 4) too chatty 5) other… I did ask a mod but got no reply.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 7, 2014 at 23:04
  • Imho, this makes perfect sense. Aug 17, 2014 at 17:26

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