The Grammarphobia Blog

Why is a police officer called a “cop”?

Q: I’ve heard that the word “cop” (for policeman) comes from “constable on patrol.” Am I right?

A: The noun “cop,” meaning a police officer, isn’t an acronym for “constable on patrol” or “custodian of the peace,” as some have suggested over the years. It comes from a verb, “to cop,” meaning to seize or nab, which subsequently gave rise to the noun “copper,” meaning a person who seizes or nabs. The noun “copper” was later shortened to “cop.”

According to the Dictionary of Word Origins (by John Ayto, Arcade Publishing), the noun “copper” is what’s called an agent noun, formed from the verb “to cop.” It is thought to come from Old French (“caper”) by way of Latin (“capere”), meaning to seize or take. It’s also the root of our word “capture.”

The noun “copper” was first used to refer to a police officer in 1846, according to other sources I’ve checked. The noun “cop” is a shortened form that dates to 1859.