Mugshot, racketeering, listless …

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Over the past few months, U.S. political events have given Ben Zimmer opportunity for some fun etymologies in his WSJ column: mug shot, racketeering, listless. There are plenty more targets Out There — like candidate, from Latin candidus (“dazzling white, shining, clear”); or debate, originally from Latin dis- (“apart, in different directions”) + battuere (“to beat, to fence”).

Ben began with Mug Shot, back on April 9:

[H]ow did photographs taken for police records come to be called “mug shots” anyway? The “shot” part, from the act of shooting a camera, is straightforward enough, but the “mug” part tells a fascinating etymological tale.

The word “mug” probably entered English from a Scandinavian source to refer to a drinking cup, typically cylindrical in shape. There are similar words in Swedish, Norwegian, German and Dutch, but it’s unclear how they all historically relate to each other. In any case, mugs became popular drinking vessels in 17th-century England, and they began to be manufactured in all shapes and sizes.

One style of drinking mug that was trendy for a time was shaped like a grotesque human face. As an allusion to these fanciful mugs, the word “mug” itself came to be used to refer to a face, especially an ugly one. […]

The use of “mug” for a person’s face branched off on many slangy trajectories. In boxing, striking a person in the face was called “mugging” in the early 19th century, which then got extended to attacking or robbing someone in a public place. (Thieves also called their marks “mugs” since the word came to refer to gullible or incompetent people.) And among the theatrical set, the verb “mug” could also signify making exaggerated facial expressions.

Next was racketeering, on August 17:

Racketeering is one of dozens of offenses charged in the Georgia case, but it is the one with the most serious legal consequences under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, modeled after the RICO Act for federal crimes. On both the federal and state level, antiracketeering laws are designed to combat organized crime by allowing prosecutors to charge a group of people if they can be shown to be engaging in a pattern of criminal activity as part of a shared enterprise. […]

[H]ow did this word, which brings to mind cacophony and corruption in equal measure, become enshrined in our legal lingo?

The term’s boisterous origins start off with the emergence of the word “racket” in English in the 16th century, when it first got used for loud disturbances and general disorder. In 1565, the English clergyman Matthew Parker, serving as the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a letter about a young firebrand named George Withers at Cambridge University who had called for the removal of “superstitious” stained glass from the school’s chapels. Parker complained of “the racket stirred up by Withers” for “the reformation of university windows.” […]

While the origin of “racket” is unclear, etymologists suggest it was supposed to be imitative of a noisy sound. It appears to be unrelated to the other kind of “racket”—also spelled “racquet”—for the implement used in tennis and related sports. […]

By the 18th century, “racket” got extended to loud protests, exuberant social gatherings and the hustle and bustle of society in general. In 1819, James Hardy Vaux, an English convict exiled in Australia, published a memoir of his criminal career and included “A Vocabulary of the Flash Language” collecting underworld slang. Vaux explained that the word “racket” applied to “some particular kinds of fraud and robbery,” detailing various schemes that used the label. The extension of “racket” to petty crimes may have had to do with the noisy disturbances that teams of thieves used to distract their victims. It may also have been influenced by the tennis term, since “rackets” were seen as a kind of “game,” also applied to criminal endeavors.

It wasn’t until the Prohibition era that “racket” became firmly linked to organized crime. A March 1924 Chicago Tribune article spoke of a bootlegger who “had decided to quit the ‘racket’ and go into legitimate business.” The next month, the Tribune reported on the mob funeral of Al Capone’s brother Frank, killed in a police shootout: “all manner of ‘racketeers’” were in attendance. Adding the “-eer” suffix created a snappy term for someone engaged in illicit schemes. Soon enough it was turned into a verb, with “racketeering” coming to refer to such crimes as loan-sharking and extorting protection money.

And finally listless, on August 24 (with some quotes and links derived from "Listless vessels", LLOG 8/20/2023):

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken some heat for comments he made in an interview last week comparing supporters of former President Donald Trump, his rival in the Republican presidential primary race, to “listless vessels.” […]

DeSantis has actually used the phrase before in different contexts. When speaking on education, he has warned that students who are not provided with a foundation in what he calls “the principles that have made this country unique” will graduate as “listless vessels.” In May, DeSantis referred to President Biden as “a listless vessel, not energetic” in a Fox News interview. Meanwhile, his wife Casey has decried politicians who go to Washington, D.C. and “become listless vessels, bending in the wind, beholden to polls and politics.”

The peculiar turn of phrase hinges on what exactly it means to be “listless.” In the sense of “languid” or “unresponsive,” “listless” dates back to the 15th century in English usage. An English-Latin dictionary from 1440 gives “lystles” as a translation of the Latin words “desidiosus” (“lazy”) and “segnis” (“sluggish”). It could apply to things as well as people seen as lacking energy, as in a 1652 sermon by the English clergyman Anthony Burgess, who spoke of how “the Church was listless, unprepared.”

“Listless” is rooted in a now-obsolete meaning of “list” meaning “desire” or “inclination,” sharing a root with “lust.” As a verb, “list” could also mean “to wish to do something,” as in the line from the King James Bible, “The winde bloweth where it listeth.” This old meaning of “list” is likely related to the nautical use of the word, as both a noun and a verb, for a ship tilting to one side, since a tilt can be thought of as a kind of inclination.

There's some serious synchronicity here, as often in etymologies. Ben mentions the word list as historically related to lust, in the sense of "desire"; and the concept of "inclination" as a physical metaphor for leaning towards a particular option.

He also notes the connection between "inclination" and "a ship tilting to one side", but he seems to miss a critical aspect of the historical physics of the metaphor. The effect of wind in powering a sailing vessel is almost always to make it tilt to one side or another, except in the unusual circumstance that a steady wind is dead astern. So a sailing vessel that's not tilting is probably becalmed and going nowhere — metaphorically "lacking energy", "lazy", "sluggish". The physics behind the metaphor disappeared with the advent of steam power and other internal engines, but the (as usual) the word sense remained behind, at least in the "listless vessel" phrase.



  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 9:30 am

    I wonder if the noisy sort of racket is somehow related to the clattering noise made by a ratchet.

  2. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 9:51 am

    "One style of drinking mug that was trendy for a time was shaped like a grotesque human face" — interesting that Ben makes no reference to these being described as "John Bull mugs", the designation by which they are commonly known in the U.K.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 9:52 am

    I am curious as to how that snappy journalese coinage of "racketeer" (whether noun or verb) eventually made its way over to the more solemn register of statutory language enacted by Congress. The federal RICO statute was enacted in 1970 (over four decades after the coinage), although I'm not certain whether or not there were earlier statutes that also used the word.

    Perhaps a significant intermediate step was the 1951 final report of the U.S. Senate's Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce (commonly called the "Kefauver Committee"), which uses "racketeering" seven times and the noun "racketeer" another two dozen or so. The cynic might note that a chief purpose of such special investigative committees was historically to attract newspaper coverage and favorable publicity for the participating Senators, and using snappy journalese jargon might contribute to that goal.

  4. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 10:27 am

    How a sailboat indeed lists may well be relevant, though not necessarily to Mr.DeSantis.
    Or–wild guess–one without agenda, principles, direction, mission, purpose, creed, belief, right livelihood, North Star, teleology.
    Or not.

  5. Robert Coren said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 11:28 am

    "Thieves also called their marks “mugs” since the word came to refer to gullible or incompetent people."

    Hence the (chiefly British?) phrase "a mug's game", referring to one that only a fool would play since one was pretty much guaranteed to lose.

    I understand that Trump or his associates are selling merchandise adorned with his mug shot, presumably including drinking vessels, thereby giving an extra twist to the term.

  6. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 12:50 pm

    "Ben makes no reference to these being described as "John Bull mugs", the designation by which they are commonly known in the U.K." — also "Toby jugs" [1], probably an even more common designation in the U.K.

    [1] Allegedly named after an 18th-century Yorkshire man who acquired the nickname Toby Fillpot after he drank 2,000 pints of Yorkshire ale. Presumably he was already known as "Toby" and only the "Fillpot" was added in recognition of his insatiable thirst. There is, interestingly, no parallel suggestion that Thomas Philipot, founder of Thomas Philipot's Almshouse Charity, gained his surname for a similar reason.

  7. Viseguy said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 5:27 pm

    As a Sicilian-American, I've always had ambivalent feelings about the RICO acronym. On the one hand, it's a deft coinage and my hat's off to whoever came up with it; I mean, it's damn good. On the other, I've never been able to shake off the feeling that it elicits smirks at the expense of the tens of millions of Italians and Italian-Americans who've managed to make their way through life without ever becoming racketeers. But I had a thriving civil RICO practice in the late '80s and '90s, so I guess it's more or less a wash for me. RICO, SHMICO.

  8. maidhc said,

    August 28, 2023 @ 5:50 pm

    My association with RICO is with the character in the TV series The Untouchables. Rico was an Italian-American whose connections in the Italian community were valuable in helping Elliot Ness to fight gangsters.

    But I guess other people might think of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2023 @ 8:29 am

    For whatever impressionistic reasons, I think of "Rico" (at least in a U.S. setting) as a more stereotypically Hispanic name than stereotypically Italian-American name. And wikipedia's more global list of notable Ricos is fairly light on persons of apparent Italian ethnicity. But maybe the scriptwriters of long-ago gangster movies had a different impression?

  10. Bloix said,

    August 29, 2023 @ 5:10 pm

    This is Rico in the popular imagination (if you can't spare 4 minutes go to 3:30).

    I have no doubt that this is the image the drafters of the original RICO act had in mind.

  11. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 30, 2023 @ 6:35 am

    "This is Rico in the popular imagination" — this may be Rico in the popular imagination of some subset of humanity, but I would respectfully suggest that the word "Rico" has virtually no meaning to the vast majority of the human race (including myself) other than as the second element of "Puerto Rico".

  12. Kate Bunting said,

    August 30, 2023 @ 7:31 am

    A racket(t) is also a Renaissance woodwind instrument.

    I believe the surname Philpott is derived from the French diminutive -ot of the name Philippe (cf Charlot = Charlie).

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