The Grammarphobia Blog

Cop talk

Q: In Lyndsay Faye’s novel The Gods of Gotham, the words “cop” and “copper” are said to be derived from copper stars worn by New York City policemen in the 1840s. I always thought “cop” comes from “constable on patrol.”

A: We haven’t read The Gods of Gotham, a historical thriller set in 1845—the year the New York City Police Department was founded. And we could find only snippets of it online.

So we can’t comment on what Faye has—or hasn’t—written about the etymology of “cop” and “copper.”

But we can say that the noun “cop,” for a police officer, isn’t an acronym. And it’s not about copper buttons or badges, either.

As we wrote on our blog back in 2006, “cop” is short for an earlier noun, “copper,” meaning a person who seizes or nabs.

Both this word “copper” and its predecessor, the verb “cop” (to nab or capture), are thought to be derived from an Old French verb, caper, from the Latin capere, meaning to seize or take.

We also wrote about “cop” in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. Here’s an excerpt:

“The most popular myth about the word is that it comes from the copper buttons on police uniforms. Another is that it comes from the copper badges worn by New York City police in the nineteenth century. Yet another suggests that ‘cop’ is an acronym for ‘constable on patrol’ or ‘chief of police’ or ‘custodian of the peace’ or some such phrase.

“In fact, cops were walking beats long before any of those phony acronyms arrived on the scene. And ‘cop’ has nothing to do with any metals, copper or otherwise, whether in buttons or badges. Metal buttons on police uniforms have tended to be brass, and relatively few badges have been copper.

“The best evidence, according to word detectives who have worked the case, is that the noun ‘cop’ comes from the verb ‘cop,’ which has meant to seize or nab since at least 1704. The verb in turn may be a variation of an even earlier one, ‘cap,’ which meant to arrest as far back as 1589 (think of the word ‘capture’).

“Etymologists say the noun ‘cop’ is short for ‘copper’ (one who cops criminals), which first appeared in an 1846 British court document. The clipped version, ‘cop,’ appeared thirteen years later in an American book about underworld slang.”

In the transcript of a May 11, 1846, criminal trial at the Old Bailey in London, a police sergeant testifies that “a woman screamed very load, ‘Jim, Jim, here comes the b—coppers,’ and at that moment the money was thrown out—I have heard the police called coppers before.”

As it turns out, the slang word “copper” apparently didn’t cross the Atlantic and appear in print in the US until 1859, 14 years after the establishment of the NYPD.

The earliest citations for “copper” and “cop” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from George Washington Matsell’s 1859 slang dictionary Vocabulum, or, The Rogue’s Lexicon.

We looked through the dictionary in Google Books and didn’t find separate entries for either “cop” or “copper.” But the two words showed up many times in the entries for other words. Here’s a typical example:

“COPPED. Arrested. ‘The knuck was copped to rights, a skin full of honey was found in his kick’s poke by the copper when he frisked him,’ [meaning that] the pickpocket was arrested, and when searched by the officer, a purse was found in his pantaloons pocket full of money.”

By the way, we’ve noticed from reviews of The Gods of Gotham that members of the NYPD are repeatedly referred to as “copper stars”—a usage that apparently didn’t exist at the time the book was set.

In searches of Google Books and Google News, we couldn’t find any 19th-century examples of the term being used for police officers.

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