Posted by: Jack Henry | June 18, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Cop-out

“Hey, Kara.”

“Yes, Tony?”

“Can I write an opening to a document like this, or is it a cop-out? Hey, and what’s up with the term ‘cop-out’?”

Yes, that’s how IMs go sometimes. And then I gather the hounds and try to track down the explanation to some of the weird things we say in English. As a verb, to “cop out” is to avoid something you should do, like shirking your responsibilities. As a noun, a “cop-out” is an excuse or means of avoiding whatever it is you should be doing.

But where did it come from? Here’s what the World Wide Words folks say. (Note: it is a British article, so the punctuation and some spelling may be different than ours.)

It’s first recorded about the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, meaning to take something for oneself (“He simply can’t lose, can’t fail to cop out the best-looking girl with the biggest bank-roll in town”. That’s from The Fortune Hunter, by Louis Joseph Vance, published in 1910). This was based on one of the many standard English senses of cop — to snatch, steal or grab. Around the 1930s, cop out began to take on another of the senses of cop — to catch or apprehend (which is what a cop in the sense of a policeman does, a slang term which came from the same source but rather earlier). To cop out here meant to plead guilty, especially to a lesser charge as the result of plea bargaining.

The big change came in the 1950s. To cop out evolved to refer to making a full confession of some crime or misdemeanor, usually but not necessarily to the police. From this it moved to mean backing down or surrendering, or giving up your criminal or unconventional lifestyle; in the 1960s it developed still further to mean that a person was evading an issue by making excuses or taking the easy way out.

In parallel with this, your noun form, a cop-out, developed from the late 1950s onwards until it, too, became nationally known in the mid-1960s (and quickly spread to Britain and other countries, too) to mean an excuse, a pretext, a going back on your responsibilities to avoid trouble, a cowardly or feeble evasion.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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