We were hearing the word 'racketeering' coming up quite a bit, what with the Fulton County, Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis adding an expert on the subject to her criminal investigation of former President Trump's phone calls asking Georgia's Secretary of State Raffensperger to 'find him more votes.' Although this has faded from the headlines a bit in the wake of other events (for now), I did find myself wondering about the word, especially as it was surprising to hear it come up in a context other than mob crime.
It turns out that 'racketeer' is one of those unusual words that has quite a specific date of coinage that can actually be traced. The Employer's Association of Greater Chicago, which was formed in 1905 with the purpose of breaking up unions according to Wikipedia, came up with it in 1927 in a statement about organized crime in the Teamsters Union. (The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word was first published in 1928.) In an ironic twist, the president of the association, James Breen, was soon rumored to be linked to the rackets himself and had to resign, although he was never indicted. However, Wikipedia also says that crime organizations blew up his house the next year to scare him into not talking, so I guess he didn't get off scot-free.
|"The Racketeer" 1929-Hedda Hopper , Carole Lombard|
I have looked at a few pages now to get a sense of what racketeering is, and the definition that I find most helpful is one that D.A.Willis gave herself, saying that racketeering is "doing overt acts using a legal entity for an illegal purpose."
In the same Business Insider article, Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey is quoted as saying that racketeering "is not a crime--it's a way of thinking about and prosecuting a variety of crimes."
The etymology of 'racket' in this sense is fairly unclear. Whether it's connected to the word's sense of "loud noise", or to games via the word 'raquet,' or to the word 'rack-rent', which meant extortionate rent back in the 1590s, seems to be anybody's guess. But I liked this idea which came up in on the English Language and Usage group on Slack Exchange:
That is from The Facts on File Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) by Robert Hendrickson.
Many of us have heard of the RICO Act, but we may not know or remember that that's an acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was enacted in 1970.
So that guy, John Floyd, who Willis brought on board to look into the racketeering aspects of the investigation? Turns out he wrote the book on the subject. Literally.