History Sheeter

A long story.

Dear Word Detective:  Could you please tell me the source of the term “history-sheeter”? — A. Ray.

It shows to go ya. When I first read this question, I suspected that it was what we here at Word Detective World Headquarters call a “huh-next.” We get a fair number of queries that are either flat-out incoherent, perhaps spawned in a room full of monkeys and typewriters, or obviously based on garbled text that someone has encountered on the internet (e.g., “The Senator is not said office his denied any relationly…”). Typically I just mutter “huh” and go on to the next question. Something about the term “history-sheeter” piqued my interest, however, and I did a bit of searching. I’m glad I did.

Incidentally, if I might digress for a moment (good luck stopping me), has anyone else noticed the missing words on the internet? You’ll be reading a perfectly coherent sentence on an established site such as the New York Times, Slate or the Atlantic, and suddenly you’ll realize that a “the” or “has” or “or,” some little word that obviously should be there, simply isn’t. Have all the copy editors been laid off? Silly question. I guess that’s why the new guy at our local Starbucks keeps correcting customers’ grammar.

Meanwhile, back at your question, “history-sheeter” has nothing to do with Thomas Jefferson pillowcases. It’s an Anglo-Indian colloquial term, widely used in the news media in India, meaning “a career criminal” (“Policemen checked on the addresses of all wanted criminals and history-sheeters,” Indian Express, 2005). A “history sheet” in this context is a criminal record, a list of charges, convictions and other information kept by law enforcement authorities, the equivalent of what we in the US know as a “rap sheet.” The “sheet” in both phrases originally referred to an actual sheet of paper (or multiple sheets, for “hard cases”) on which such records were kept, but with the rise of the thinking machines, such “sheets” now exist largely in digital form.

So a “history-sheeter” in India is a miscreant with a prodigious “history sheet,” what we in the US would call “a rap sheet a mile long.” According to the Double-Tongued Dictionary, Grant Barrett’s excellent online exploration of slang terms, odd words and new words (www.doubletongued.org), the term “rowdy-sheeter” is synonymous with “history-sheeter,” and is also commonly used in India. (“Rowdy” is a more negative term in India than in the US, where it means little more than “boisterous.”) Incidentally, “history-sheeter” in the “criminal” sense dates back only to the late 1980s, but “history sheet” has been used, primarily in the British Commonwealth, since the 19th century to mean any written record kept pertaining to a person (criminal, medical, employment, driving, etc.).

And now, because I’m psychic, I know you’re about to ask where the “rap” in “rap sheet” came from. This is the same “rap,” drawn from Scandinavian roots, that we use to mean “a quick, light blow” (as in “a rap on the knuckles”). “Rap” has been used since the 18th century to mean “blame or rebuke” and since the early 20th to mean “criminal charge or prison sentence” (as in “bum rap,” meaning an undeserved charge or sentence). “Rap” as a style of speech or music is an outgrowth of the same word, based on the sense of “patter” and rapid, rhythmic speech.

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