May 29, 2013 8:51 PM   Subscribe

What is the etymology of "ratchet," a slang term with a negative meaning?

You can find sources here:


Particularly definitions 1, 3, 7, etc... It means "ghetto/slutty/ugly/trashy hot mess," particularly when describing a person. (But a particularly beat up car could be "ratchet," too, for example.)

The word sounds similar to "wretched," but is there any evidence that "ratchet" comes from that? Or is there another potential etymology?
posted by lewedswiver to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It may be traceable back to a song by a rapper called Lil Boosie from a few years ago, according to this.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:55 PM on May 29, 2013


"A cold, heartless, ghetto-ass bitch with a big ole bootie. A chick who won't let you even beat off or fuck a whore. Based on the character Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

When nurse ratchet won't let McMurphy fuck his prostitute girlfriend, she was being real ratchet."

posted by Michele in California at 8:56 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've had discussions with friends about this, in relation to ratchet music which is definitely related. In that case i'm almost positive it refers to the hi-hats hitting on the 8th or 16th beat pretty much constantly. This of course applies to everything from trap to more white hipster dude stuff like purity ring.

Calling anything else that seems to be somehow related to the "ghetto" part of it, by a kinda gross relation to the fact that it's hip hop music/beats.

I don't have any links on that, but the music side definitely seems to be where this term started.

On preview, His thoughts were red thoughts seems to bolster this concept.
posted by emptythought at 8:57 PM on May 29, 2013

I looked this up the other day as part of deciphering a teenage relative's increasingly slang-filled Facebook posts:



... although any negative connotations seem to be in the eye of the beholder.
posted by erst at 8:57 PM on May 29, 2013

I live in Baton Rouge and I've had students use this word. I quizzed them and other staff on it as I hadn't been exposed to it before, and at least anecdotally I was told it was a bastardization of wretched. My students basically defined it as "crazy homeless behavior and attire."

There was also this one slang phrase which I only kind of heard which they wouldn't say again or define when asked about it. I'm still waiting to hear it again so I can pounce!
posted by vegartanipla at 9:01 PM on May 29, 2013

Man, I have no cite here at all, and this is just my unexamined impression as a white dude who listens to a lot of rap music:

"Ratchet" is a slang term for a gun. Ratchet music is that subset of rap music that thematically deals primarily with dealing drugs, and it was given that name somewhat derisively by critics who considered it regressive.
posted by chrchr at 9:10 PM on May 29, 2013

Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl fame explains ratchet in her web series,
Ratchetpiece Theatre" (NSFW):
"If 'ghetto' and 'hot shitty mess' had a baby and that baby had no father and became a stripper, then made a sex tape with an athlete and became a reality star."
posted by fuse theorem at 9:20 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

From an earlier time... Jimmy Cliff's reggae classic 'Johnny too Bad' contains this lyric:

Walking down the road
With your ratchet in your waist
Johnny you’re too bad

In this context I'm pretty certain it means handgun.
posted by tim_in_oz at 9:43 PM on May 29, 2013

I understand the handgun thing but that is outmoded. I listen to a fair amount of hip hop and It wasn't working for me . The current one almost certainly comes from wretched.
posted by Rubbstone at 9:55 PM on May 29, 2013

Sounds similar to the Australianism(?) 'ratshit' (also abbreviated as 'RS') for something broken, unserviceable, cheap, old, worn out. That's as old as my grandparents at least, but I've heard plenty of people use it in the current day.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:15 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

i would guess it's actually a mispronounced 'wretched'
posted by empath at 10:16 PM on May 29, 2013

In this context I'm pretty certain it means handgun.

In reggae, a ratchet is a folding knife, not a gun.
posted by pompomtom at 10:18 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

now with pix
posted by pompomtom at 10:19 PM on May 29, 2013

It's a bastardization of wretched.
posted by loriginedumonde at 10:47 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I teach middle school and my students started on this word in late 2011. I asked them what it meant and got definitions similar to above. I asked them where it came from and they said "a song, it's inappropriate," so it may be the one in the first comment.
posted by mai at 4:52 AM on May 30, 2013

I'm seconding "ratshit" in the context of the question.
posted by FrereKhan at 6:13 AM on May 30, 2013

In the song "Bands a Maker Her Dance" by Juicy J, which gets a fair amount of radio airplay, he states that he cannot refuse a ratchet woman.
She got friends bring three, I got drugs I got drinks
Bend it over juicy j gone poke it like wet paint
You say no to ratchet pussy, juicy j can't
posted by wcfields at 10:16 AM on May 30, 2013

Huh, I know someone who named his dog Ratchet...I always assumed it was after a gun. Alas, he has left the building tonight, so I can't ask him what else it might mean.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:18 PM on May 30, 2013

I occasionally use this word, especially when I code-switch. Members of my social network use this word with relative frequency. Especially my Southern friends, and we all swear that the term "ratchet," when applied anything that could aptly be described as "busted," was born in Atlanta. Atlanta is one of those places with cultural gravity for consumable Black culture, kind of like New York. Unlike New York, a lot of Southern slang travels up and westward very quickly.

NappyAfro, The Root, and Issa Rae are as close as you're going to get when trying to look for this word's origin.
posted by Ashen at 9:17 PM on May 31, 2013

She got friends bring three, I got drugs I got drinks
Bend it over juicy j gone poke it like wet paint
You say no to ratchet pussy, juicy j can't

Note the slanted rhymes drinks, paint and can't... he's definitely playing around with vowel sounds there, and I've no doubt that ratchet=wretched here... They may not even know that they're saying wretched, but that's definitely what it is.

It's interesting to think about whether one word becomes another word if it's used identically but is just spelled wrong.
posted by empath at 8:27 AM on June 1, 2013

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