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According to the OED the term apparently began in Britain, but became equally used on both sides of the Atlantic.

It means a dishonest or fraudulent line of business, a method of swindling for financial gain.

It has given rise to protection racket, extortion racket etc.

But why racket?

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  • 1
    Meaning "dishonest activity" (1785) is perhaps from racquet, via notion of "game," reinforced by rack-rent "extortionate rent" (1590s), from rack. Etymonline.
    – user66974
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:42
  • @Josh61 The earliest reference the OED has is 1819.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 28, 2014 at 20:48
  • 1
    Not to mention racketeering. :)
    – Lambie
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 20:54

6 Answers 6

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Here is an interesting explanation offered by Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1997):

racket; racketeer. English pickpockets, once the best of the breed, invented the ploy of creating disturbances in the street to distract their victims while they emptied their pockets. This practice was so common that a law was passed in 1697 forbidding the throwing of firecrackers and other devices causing a racket on the city streets. From the common pickpocket ploy the old onomatopoeic English word racket, imitative like crack or bang and meaning a disturbance or loud noise, took on its additional meaning of a scheme, a dodge, illicit criminal activity. Before 1810, when it first appeared in print, the word had acquired this slang meaning in England, though it was later forgotten and the word racket for a criminal activity wasn't used again there until it was reintroduced from America along with the American Prohibition invention from it, racketeer. The only other, improbable, explanation given for the word is that it was originally the name of an ancient, crooked dice game. ...

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Fifth Edition (1961) corroborates Hendrickson's etymological analysis:

racket. A dodge, trick; plan; 'line', occupation, esp. if these are criminal or 'shady': ... Ex. racket, noise, disturbance. ...

John Hotten, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words (1859) has this entry:

RACKET, a dodge, manœuver, exhibition ; a disturbance.

Francis Grose & Pierce Egan, Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1823) has this:

RACKET. Some particular kinds of fraud and robbery are so termed, when called by their flash [that is, cant] titles, and others, Rig ; as, the Letter-racket ; the Order-racket ; the Kid-rig ; the Cat & Kitten rig, &c. but all these terms depend on the fancy of the speaker. In fact, any game may be termed a rig, racket, suit, slum, &c. by prefixing thereto the particular branch of depredation or fraud in question, many examples of which occur in this work.

So the noun racket in its underworld sense has been around since the early 1800s (at least) and appears to have been inspired by the use of sudden noises by pickpockets or their confederates as a distraction just prior to a theft.

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  • +1 for an excellent piece of research. Who can say whether it is the 'correct answer'? But it was a very good one.
    – WS2
    Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 18:10
  • According to the OED the etymology of racket meaning a cacophony of sound MAY be from the Gaelic racaid meaning 'noise'.
    – WS2
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 10:22
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By 1900, Tammany politicians would grant friends and employees an informal concession to run parties called balls or rackets as money-makers. Here are a few lines from Joseph Mitchell's 1941 New Yorker profile of a character named Commodore Dutch, who made a living for decades throwing himself a racket granted to him in 1900 by Big Tim Sullivan, the Tammany chief of the Bowery. Dutch, who was patrolling saloons for Sullivan, asked him for a loan, but Sullivan gave him a racket instead.

Big Tim had a number of retainers and hangers-on whose duties were similarly vague and confidential. He rewarded some by permitting them to run balls, or "rackets," for which all the saloon-keepers and dive-keepiers in the Bowery district were obliged to buy so many tickets. Among them were Larry Mulligan, Big Tim's half-brother, who operated a profitable St. Patrick's Eve ball in Terrace Garden Hall, and Harry Oxford, a fixer, who ran one on Washington's Birthday Eve in Webster Hall.

(Joseph Mitchell,"Up in the Old Hotel," p. 131)

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According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

racket:

Meaning "dishonest activity" (1785) is perhaps from racquet, via notion of "game," reinforced by rack-rent "extortionate rent" (1590s), from rack (n.1).

In other words, the likely etymology is from the use of "racquet" to describe a game and such a "dishonest activity" also being described as a "game".

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*This is all I could find but it still doesn't explain why 'Racket' was used in the first place.

The focus on illegal activities by unions proved so effective that the EA's main priority became attacking labor racketeering. The term "racketeering" was, in fact, coined by the Employers' Association of Chicago in June 1927 in a statement about the influence of organized crime in the Teamsters union.

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employers%27_Association_of_Greater_Chicago

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In 1800's New York, political parties directly supported street gangs as enforcement tools. They would throw loud, boisterous parties for the gangs under their protection and sell tickets to their "rackets" as it was called. This undoubtedly was picked up from the noise-making sense of "racket", but from this point on, became associated with organized gang activity.

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  • Hi Glenn, welcome to ELU! Can you provide a source for why it was called a "racket" even in those days? Though you said "undoubtedly" for its origin from the noise-making sense, I still have doubts as to the veracity of this statement. Thanks!
    – Erich
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 0:09
  • @erich It is interesting that the OED does not supply any etymology of racket meaning a fraud, though it recognises that meaning and shows plentiful examples. This suggests the OED compilers may be sceptical of it being connected to the noise-making sense. The OED gives as suggested etymologies of the noise-making sense that it could be 'imitative', and the Gaelic word racaid meaning noise.
    – WS2
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 10:26
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because sound is a key factor, perhaps the origin is tied originally to the late medieval instrument called the racquet (available in many registers like saxophones are now) which, like the modern saxophone, many would say "makes quite a racket" or "noisy disturbance", which could be then transferred to the activities of thieves. Or both come from a common source further back in linguistic history than is traceable.

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  • Do you have references? The site is looking for authoritative answers with references people can verify.
    – jimm101
    Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 19:38
  • 1
    Please look at the quality of Sven Yargs' answer. Researched and showing supported rather than conjectural suggestions. Commented Nov 1, 2019 at 19:42

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