What it Means to be Ratchety and Why

My daughter looked in on her high school homecoming dance this weekend, but left early because, as she told me the next morning, “it was really ratchety.”  The word was new to me, as it is very likely new to you, so I pressed my daughter for its meaning.  It took some prying since my daughter has not inherited her father’s flaw of rude bluntness, but no one said the life of a lexicographer is easy.  It turns out that “ratchety” is an adjective that means after the manner of a low-class black bitch of loose morals.

These were not, I hasten to add, my daughter’s words—the father’s flaw not having passed down to his daughter.

The Urban Dictionary confirms this definition and tells me that a “ratchet” is, just as I said, a low-class black bitch of loose morals.  Moreover, it tells me that a “ratchet” is very often accompanied by a “ratcher,” which is to say “a man who sweet talks the ladies [i.e. ratchets] and takes them [!] to bed.”

Actually takes them (?) to the boys lavatory if the “ratcher” and “ratchet” are enrolled in my daughter’s high school, coitus now vying with cannabis as the main use for that room.  The “ratchety” conduct of the “ratchers” and “ratchets” at the homecoming dance was, I gather, to merely simulate coitus by lewdly twerking and grinding on the dance floor.

The origins of slang words are often very obscure, and when not obscure often stupid.  One immediately supposes that the word “ratchety” must have something to do with the sound or operation of a mechanical ratchet, but my now educated guess is that “ratchety” is a combination of the words rickety and rackety.  The relation to rickety is evident in this 1917 description of an elderly shoe store clerk:

“The old man is slightly shuffly . . . . His own elastics are less resilient than once they were.  If you ask him for anything on the top shelf he is a trifle slow in getting the ladder and rather ratchety in clambering up and down.”[1]

The same suggestion of rickety is evident in the usages, “ratchety steps”[2] and “ratchety old horse.”[3]

But “ratchety” also mean creaking, whether because of decrepitude or for some other reasons.  The geared locomotives of a logging railroad were, for instance, described as “starting a ratchety echoing through the woods.”[4]  A 1914 book of craft projects for American boys included instructions for a “Hallowe’en Noisemaker.”  Operated by a crank, this device was to be used to turn a leather belt against the outside of a window pane, thereby causing an eerie creaking that would frighten or annoy all those within.  The American Boy’s Workshop assured its readers “a distressing, ratchety noise will be the result and you will probably have to scamper away quickly in order to escape someone’s wrath.”[5]

The creaking of a geared locomotive or “Hallowe’en Noisemaker” was, I daresay, more like screeching than mere creaking, and such loud and obstreperous screeching may be what suggested “rachety” as a word meaning after the manner of low-class black bitches of low morals.

[1]) Rupert Hughes, In a Little Town (New York: Harper & Bros., 1917), p. 218

[2]) R. Campbell Thompson, A Pilgrim’s Script (London: John Lane, 1915), p. 62.

[3] Nancy Dingman Watson, Toby and Doll (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955), p. 29

[4]) Allan Krieg, Last of the 3 Foot Loggers (San Marino, Ca.: Pacific Railway Journal, 1963), p. 7.

[5]) Clarence Budington Kelland (ed.), The American Boy’s Workshop (Philadelphia: D. McKat, 1914), p. 275

4 thoughts on “What it Means to be Ratchety and Why

  1. I remember hearing this word in high school in the 90s but always accompanied by the word bitch, “that ratchety bitch.” I always assumed it somehow arose from a garbled pronunciation of wretched mixed with a poor grasp of grammar that assumed every adjective needed a y at the end.

    • That usage is correct, and maybe the etymology also. Mine is just an educated guess. The character of Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is another possibility, although the people who use the word don’t read books and are too young for the movie.

  2. A man is trying to “ratchet up” the number of women he sleeps with, and these disposable women are thus “ratchets”. Its similar to the phrase “notches on the bedpost”.

    • My first thought was that the word must be metaphorically related to the mechanical device, and I still can’t rule this out. I’d guess that most people use the word ratchet to refer to a ratcheted socket wrench, and aside from swift motion cannot see how a ratcheted socket wrench is ratchety. In fact a socket wrench of any description may be too closely connected to work for it to be within the experience of ratchets and ratchers.


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