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Origin of 'cop'

January 27, 2012 - Jodelle Greiner
Reporters work with the police quite a bit, and one of them I ran across — actually, it was his wife — objected to the term “cop” as a reference to police officers. I can’t remember exactly why she didn’t like it, but she gave me the impression that officers didn’t think it was a proper term to use.

I was reminded of that while writing up my article on Tom Fletcher being named police chief; I noticed he referred to himself as a “cop” a few times.

I had always heard the term “cop” originated with American gangs in the New York area in the early 1900’s. The police at that time wore copper badges and the gangsters took to calling them “coppers”, which was eventually shortened to “cops”.

Wanting to find out if that was true, I went to google.com and looked it up.

The ask.yahoo.com site said the copper badges is one explanation that’s been circulated, but another story is that “cop” stands for “constable on patrol”. The yahoo guys said they’d done their own search and the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories and Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words column had another explanation.

“Around the year 1700, the slang verb ‘cop’ entered English usage, meaning ‘to get ahold of, catch, capture.’ By 1844, ‘cop’ showed up in print, and soon thereafter the -er suffix was added, and a policeman became a copper, one who cops or catches and arrests criminals. ‘Copper’ first appeared in print in 1846, the use of ‘cop’ as a short form ‘copper’ occurred in 1859,” says ask.yahoo.com.

The “’cop’ means to seize” explanation is one supported by www.worldwidewords.com, too.

“This can be followed back through the French ‘caper’ to the Latin ‘capere’, ‘to seize, take’, from which we also get our ‘capture’,” worldwidewords.com said. “The situation is complicated because there are — or have been — a number of other slang meanings for ‘cop’, including ‘to give somebody a blow’, and the phrase ‘cop out’, as an escape or retreat. Both of these may come from the Latin ‘capere’. But it’s suggested that another sense of ‘cop’, ‘to steal’, could come from the Dutch ‘kapen’, ‘to take or steal’. There’s also ‘to beware, take care’, an Anglo-Indian term from the Portuguese coprador, and phrases like ‘you’ll cop it!’ (‘you’ll be punished, you’ll get into trouble’), which could come from the idea of seizing or catching, but may be a variant of catch.

“But the ‘seize; capture’ origin for the police sense seems most plausible,” worldwidewords.com concludes. “So policemen are just those who catch or apprehend criminals, a worthy occupation. And a copper is someone who seizes, a usage first recorded in Britain in 1846.”

 
 

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