Is it "Bad Rap" or "Bad Wrap?"
Resolving the Question: Which is correct “bad rap” or “bad wrap?” Or even "bad rep?"
In light of recent reading, I've noticed the phrases "bad wrap" and "bad rap" being used interchangeably--not to mention a growing trend for "bad rep" too. As a writer and one possessed of an English degree or two, I like to fancy myself as reasonably well informed in such things, but, being the great humbler of hubris that the English language can be, before I started acting too smarmy and pointing out the mistakes of others (as we bombastic know-it-all types often do), I thought I should make sure I knew what I was talking about first. I'm glad I looked. What follows is what I found:
The correct form is "bad rap."
Alright, there you go. For those of you only looking for the proper phrase to use before moving on with some project or another, that's the short and simple answer. However, if want to use super "proper" usage (if there is such a thing), what you really want is "bum rap" instead. My beloved 2200-page Webster's Unabridged Dictionary lists both ways, but looking up "bad rap" only points you to "bum rap" and thus gives the latter priority in my eyes. In case you care, the definition is listed as follows: "1. an unjust accusation, verdict, or punishment... 2. An adverse opinion or judgment considered undeserved or unjust" (277). So there you go, if that's all you needed then enjoy and good luck on your letter, article or essay.
Now, for anyone curious or bored, my research went far beyond just an expensive dictionary, and it actually revealed some interesting insights as to how these terms all got so confused and perhaps even some ground to stand on for those who write it "wrong." For starters though, let's pin down why it is bad "rap" and not bad "wrap."
The term "rap" in all its oldest forms refers to a quick strike or physical blow, like to rap on a door or rap on a table etc. However, this term also included an aspect of rapping that was a light blow on the knuckles or noggin as a punishment (think Sister Mary Merciless and her ruler in Catholic school.) Obviously this has very little to do with having a "bad rap" as it means today, but there might be a connection given the punishment angle of the word. This is speculative on my part, I admit, but bear with me a bit longer and you'll see that my point is not to prove the relationship as much as it is to prove how things have gotten so muddled up. So, here we have an established relationship between the term "rap" as in a punishment and, therefore, by linguistic proximity, the crime for which that punishment was pronounced.
Further development of the term "rap" brought it to refer to something that was said aloud as well. The first instance of this was a reference to Thomas Wyatt's 1541 defense in which he is quoted as having said, "I am wont sometimes to rap out an oath in an earnest talk" ("Rap," def 3b XIII: 185). Again we see the term invoked in a litigious or punitive type environment and this time it's not a punishment but a speech form: to "rap out an oath" is obviously to say it out. The term is used in like manner more frequently from that time forward. So, again there's a connection to courts and justice with the term, if not a connection to someone's having a "bad rap" directly. At least not yet.
Whether either of those two ideas actually led to the use of the term as a means of impugning character or not, a decade later "rap" was being used to describe the act of doing just that. Again from the Oxford English Dictionary, 1733 slang, "to swear (a thing) against a person. Also intr. To swear; to perjure oneself." This definition coincides with a quote taken from Budgell, Bee I. 207, "He ask'd me what they had to rap against me, I told him only a Tankard." And another example later in 1752 "I scorn to rap against a lady" ("Rap," def 3c XIII: 185). Obviously now the act of speaking to incriminate or disparage someone has been encoded in the term "rap" entirely.
There is another relationship to crime that the term "rap" found itself tied to that came about around 1724. "Rap" was used, in addition to the above, to describe "A counterfeit coin, worth about half a farthing, which passed current for a halfpenny in Ireland in the 18th century owning to the scarcity of genuine money" ("Rap," def 1a XIII: 185). Once again there is a punishable or criminal association that can't be ignored, even if my connecting it to "bad rap" is only plausible at best. I merely point it out as food for thought for those who have continued to read this far.
From that time forward the word becomes more closely linked to our modern usage in the phrase "bad rap." However, the term was not paired with an adjective like "bad." Frankly, given the usage just discussed, it didn't need one. It was already defined as "A rebuke; an adverse criticism." The earliest example in this form came from a 1777 court case involving a post master, quoted thusly, "The post master general ... has lately had a rap, which I hope will have a good effect" ("Rap," def 3c XIII: 184). This was meant to say that he had a bad accusation against him and that it was hoped because of it things would improve. An adjective was unnecessary, obviously, for having a "rap" was bad on its own. To have a "bad rap" is redundant, like getting "good praise." None the less, redundancy happened.
However, "bad" became, in a way, "good" in that to have a "bad" rap, is to have a negative accusation against you that is not accurate, basically, a bad bad-accusation. Meaning the accusation is false.
It wasn't until 1927 that the first redundant pairing seems to have occurred wherein the adjective "bum" is paired with "rap." This can be found in Clark & Eubank Lockstep and Corridor vii. 45 quoted: "Edgar is now... in prison for what I honestly believe is a bum rap" ("Rap," def 3II 4b XIII: 184). From there the evolution seems to head directly into the usage we find today. The phrase "bum rap" has evolved into "bad rap" over time, but, as I pointed out at the start, "bum rap" seems to be slightly more "correct" given the Webster's kicking the definition from the former to the latter, and likely based on the fact that "bum rap" appeared first as we've just discussed.
The use of "bad rep" appears to be born out of this evolution; although at the time of this writing, there are no credible sources of research covering this latest transformation (likely it is simply too recent or, frankly, unimportant given how little is lost in meaning between the iterations). It seems likely that, as the word rapport has little use in modern dialects, the obvious assumption on the part of people, particular younger ones, is to hear what makes the most sense in context with meaning when the phrase is spoken. So, while I cannot prove this given lack of coverage on the subject, I can only state what I observe, and I certainly see that this new variant is on the rise as the Internet spreads grammatical mutation like wildfire.
The arguments in favor of "bad wrap" being correct are in deep trouble right out the gate. For starters, it doesn't show up in my Webster's Unabridged at all, so if you fancy this particular form, you're fighting the big boys of language use. I could find neither "bad" nor "bum" wraps in THE big boy, The Oxford English Dictionary either. However, there are some arguments that might be made regarding how the word "wrap" may have contributed to the meaning that evolved, perhaps in similar ways and for similar reasons as our two homophones are having done to them today, and perhaps from even farther back. Here goes:
The only remotely associable link for the word "wrap" to "bad rap" as a criminal related thing I could find might be taken from the following two examples. The first, and oldest, is this OED entry dated 1560: "Bible (Genev.) Micah vii. 3 ‘Therefore the great man he speaketh out the corruption of his soule: so they wrap it vp'" ("Wrap," def 6b XX: 603). Here it is not much of a stretch to see the possible first link between the spoken word "speaketh" and the crime "corruption" together with "wrap." The corruptions are spoken aloud and then wrapped together as one, creating, at least in concept, the idea of them having been "wrapped up." Unfortunately, I can't find anything linking this usage to the aforementioned "rap" as found in the previous sections (beyond them being homophones, which weighs something to my mind at least), and therefore can't state with certainty that there is a direct correlation any more than I can make the connection between the punishment elements of "rap" as in "rap on the knuckles" or as I can the counterfeit coin. All I can do is point them out and leave it to the reader to at least amuse him or herself with the possible connections and the delightful muddle that looking into English can be.
The second plausible connection to "wrap" and the phrase "bad rap" comes from the definition regarding figurative phrases "referring to concealment of disuse, as in under or in wraps, concealed; in abeyance; to take or pull the wraps off, to disclose; to bring back into use" ("Wrap," def 4 XX: 602). The basic idea of keeping some secret or criminal activity "under wraps." The problem with this association is that it first appears in 1939, so, while its appearance might well explain the confusion today regarding the proper usage, it clearly was predated by the "bum rap" first used in the 1927 example above.
Conclusion: It’s “Bad Rap” and not “Bad Wrap.”
So, there you have it. The bottom line is that, while plausibly related to "wrap" from as early as 1560, the correct grammatical use in modern English for this phrase is to use "rap" and not "wrap."
However, as is clearly evidenced through the history I traced here, the language is evolving. This evolution continues on this particular phrasal front primarily because the Internet propagates misuse (accidental and on purpose for "cleverness") with transformative effect. Ultimately Internet "misuse" impacts change in the way that slang and regional dialects always have. Popular use and "correct" use are rarely on the same temporal page, though it seems that inevitably popular becomes proper over time. The Internet just spreads the popular so fast that the young and web savvy (reliant?) often find themselves in trouble when they have to find the "correct" spelling or use of a term in a world that still relies on precedent to establish order and stability.
But hang in there you fans of "bad wrap," there's so much misuse of it now that in another fifty or hundred years the next editions of The Oxford English Dictionary will surely list it your way too. Once it's in there, you can use it however you want and nobody can say anything about it anymore. Until then, I'll wrap this up by saying that writing it wrong will get you rap on the knuckles from Sister Mary and a bad rap with those of us for whom grammactical matters matter.
"Bad Rap." Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 2001.
"Rap." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989.
"Wrap." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989.