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Why are Police Called Cops?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Why are Police Called Cops?

Some have proposed that the reason police officers are called "cops" is because of the New York force's copper badges.  The source of this word is much earlier.  Several sources say the usages originated in Northern England.

The word "cop" is an old Anglo-Saxon verb for catch, grab or capture, deriving from a noun "cop" dating back at least to the 1100s.  Some sources say this word related to the Dutch word kapen, with a similar meaning.  The earliest written documentation of the form "cop" as a verb in English dates to 1704.

A new noun form developed form this verb, giving us "copper."  This form "copper" thus was the noun for "one who cops."  Some sources document the use of the verb "cop" used with the meaning "arrest" in 1844, and suggests this was the source of the specific use of "cop" to refer to a law officer.

The term "copper" was originally used in England as a slang word for a police officer.  This term was used, however, as a term of abuse by criminals, especially petty street criminals.  It was considered highly derogatory by the police themselves.  It was made illegal in England to use this term for a police officer, because it was so derogatory.

The term became associated with the metal copper after that law was passed, when those hoods who wanted to abuse an officer would carry a small piece of copper metal in the palm of their hand, then flash it at the policeman.  This usage of "copper" got shortened to "cop."  The first documented use of the term copper for a police officer is in 1846.  The Oxford English Dictionary documents this usage.  Most sources report that the first documented use of the short form cop as applied to a police officer is in 1859.  Snopes finds that the term "copper" was used in London for police by 1846.

Even when I was a child in the US in the 1950s, though not illegal, it was still considered impolite to call a policeman a cop.  We were taught it was only the bad boys who feared being caught by the police that called policemen cops.  (It is only in comparatively recent history that police themselves have accepted and used the word for themselves.)

Other commentaries on this word:
Answer Bank Discussion:  Cops and Bobbies
Peevish:  Slang – This source claims the usage of cop and copper is of US origin in the mid-1800s
Police – Word Discussion on the origins of this word
Straight Dope
         Discusses various words used for police officers
Trivia Tales, Eagle-Tribune (Boston area)
         Favors an explanation similar to mine
Word Detective
         Discusses other theories, then one related to my explanation
Word Origins
Worldwide Words


First written 4 May 2001 on WHQuestion
Posted on OJTR 2 June 2001
Last edited 9 June 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © 2001 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu
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