Date: Tue, 28 Aug 1956 03:13:04 +0000
From: Tom Dalzell slangman[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]PACBELL.NET
Subject: Re: Cop
My work on "cop" is part of a longer treatment of four slang terms for
police - cop, dick, fuzz, and pig - in "The Slang of Sin" (shameless
plug) to be published by Merriam-Webster in the late summer of 1998.
Much of my work on "cop" is drawn from the Tamony archives and the rest
from Merriam-Webster's citation and etymology card files.
"Cop" as a verb meaning "to arrest" is found at least as early as 1844.
"Copper" as a noun for "policeman" is found in 1846, and "cop" as a noun
not until 1859.
John Camden Hotten (1859) surmised that a "copper" was one who "cops" or
arrests, and that "cop" as a verb was probably derived from the Latin
"capere", to seize or taking something. Farmer and Henley (1891) took
the theory a step further, pointing out the Gypsy Romani "kap" or "cop"
(to take), the Scotch "kep", the Gallic "caepen", and the Hebrew "cop"
(a hand, used to refer to snatching something.
Leaving aside the probable true origins of "cop", the folk etymologies
abound. Theories include:
-John C. Haines, chief of police in Chicago in the 1850's, was well
known as a speculator in copper - hence copper.
-Police badges were made of copper.
-Police wore copper toes on their shoes.
-Police wore large copper stars on their uniforms.
-Police wore helmets, often made of copper, to protect them from debris
thrown from windows and rooftops.
-The buttons on police uniforms were made of copper.
-English police signed their reports by named, followed by "Constable On
Patrol", which was shortened to "COP." Variations include "Constabulary
of Police" or "Custodian of the Peace."
-There was a chief of police somewhere sometime named Copp.
-The term comes from copperstick, archaic slang for a policeman's
And so on.
I'd welcome any additions to the list, with citations.
The most interesting discovery in my work on "cop" was the passionate
campaign waged by J. Edgar Hoover and the police chiefs of the nation in
1956-1958 to eradicate popular use of the term "cop", which Hoover felt
showed disrespect for police, whom he thought should be referred to as
"law enforcement officers." Who says the Left invented PC language?