Posted by: Jack Henry | July 3, 2014

Editor’s Corner: The legends of “copper”

I just purchased a book that I hope will educate and entertain all of us on occasion. It’s called What in the Word, by Charles Harrington Elster. As I was paging through it yesterday, I found something I thought might be of interest.

Question: How did police officers come to be called cops?

Answer: The two stories you hear or read the most, that cop is short for copper—a reference to the big brass buttons on the uniforms of London bobbies—or that it’s an acronym for constabulary of police or some such thing, are both unfounded. (Acronymic etymologies, in particular, are always suspect.)

The true source of cop meaning a police officer appears to be the verb to cop, which in northern England was used to mean “to capture, catch, lay hold of, ‘nab,’” says the Oxford English Dictionary, whose earliest citation for this sense is from 1704. This verb cop probably goes back in turn to the Latin capere, which meant to catch, seize, take possession by force. By the mid-nineteenth century, says the QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, the verb was “adopted as a name for a policeman, who of course, caught or captured crooks.” The old-fashioned variant copper has nothing to do with the metal or with buttons. It simply tacks the agent suffix –er onto the verb to form a noun meaning “one who cops.”

All that said, have a good holiday, be safe, and avoid any run-ins with the coppers!

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