English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is that officer a police?

Q: I just finished reading a book that uses such statements as “I am a police” and “He is a police.” I‘ve been a court reporter for about 20 years, and this stopped me each time I read it. Is this correct? It seems very awkward.

A: This usage was new to us, too, but it’s apparently common among police officers and those who have dealings with them. Perhaps the police drop their insider lingo when they appear in the courtrooms where you work.

Martin Amis’s novel Night Train (1998), which is set in a “second-echelon American city” that sounds like Seattle, opens with this passage:

“I am a police. That may sound like an unusual statement—or an unusual construction. But it’s a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman, also.”

Later, the narrator says, “I worked murders. I was a murder police.” And still later: “ ‘What’s your read on it, Mike? Not as a friend. As a police.’ ‘As a police? As a police I have to say that it looks like a suicide.’ ”

Characters in the American crime drama The Wire, set in the Baltimore area, also use “a police” in this way, as many fans have commented online.

The Oxford English Dictionary says this use of “police” as a “count noun” is regional. (A count noun is a noun that can be used in the singular with an indefinite article like “a.”)

The dictionary says the usage is chiefly found in American, Scottish, West African, and Caribbean English.

The OED’s published examples date back to the 19th century. The earliest citation (which we’ll expand for context) is from an editorial published in the Chicago American on Sept. 5, 1839, encouraging ladies to attend the theater:

“Why do not the fair ladies of our city lend the theater, occasionally, the light of their countenance? The play of ‘Isabelle, or Woman’s Life’ this evening will give them a fair and appropriate opportunity. There is a police in attendance, whose duty it is to preserve strict order and decorum in the theater.”

Here are a few of the OED’s later examples:

1856: “He was a police.” From The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, by Mark Twain. (The reference is to “a military lookin gentleman with a club in his hand, tappin me on the shoulder.”)

1960: “It was all over the market that ‘the unco man wis a p’leece wi’ plain claes.’ ” From the Huntly Express, a local weekly paper in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. (“Unco” is Scottish dialect for unknown or strange. It’s a shortening of an old use of “uncouth,” which originally meant unknown or unfamiliar.)

1988: “If you see Jobe tell him a police outside looking for him.” From A Brief Conversation: And Other Stories, by Earl Lovelace, who was born in Trinidad.

2002: “Why you was acting so suspicious? You think I was a police?” From the Sunday Gleaner, in Kingston, Jamaica.

We doubt that “a police” will slip into common usage. Our guess is that it will continue to be used mostly among law enforcers, law breakers, and the people who write about them.

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