Q: I’m a life Girl Scout who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. I always assumed that the term “kaper” in Girl Scout language was somehow related to “KP” because of the echo and the meaning. But when I Google it now all I get is that it’s a job, not necessarily one involving meals. Can you tell me more?
A: In Girl Scout terminology, a “kaper” is now simply a chore or job, and a “kaper chart” is a list of chores. But as you suspect, the usage probably comes from “KP,” short for “kitchen police,” and the earliest examples we’ve seen involve food preparation and cleanup.
We haven’t found the Girl Scout terms in any standard, etymological, or slang dictionary, but our searches of old newspaper and book databases indicate that the usage showed up in the US during the 1940s. Here are two early examples:
“Girls of Troop No. 1 have made plans for the meeting of June 4th, when Bennett Intermediate Troop will be their guests for the day. Last Monday they planned their menu, and at the next meeting at 10 A. M. on May 28, a ‘Kaper chart’ will be made for dividing the duties.” (From The Adams County News in Aurora, CO, May 29, 1945.)
“The girls have practiced the accepted method of making bed rolls, planning menus and purchasing food. Mrs. Thomas has arranged for a Kaper chart which gives each girl her share of fire building, cooking and cleaning up.” (From an article about a Girl Scout camping trip, in a suburban New York paper, The Bronxville Reporter, May 8, 1947.)
Today, as you’ve noticed, Girl Scouts use the terms “kaper” and “kaper chart” in reference to any chores or jobs, food-related or otherwise. Here, for example, is a description and an image from the website of the Girl Scouts of Southwest Indiana:
“A ‘kaper chart’ is a Girl Scout tradition for dividing up troop responsibilities. A kaper is a job or chore that must be done. A kaper chart indicates all the jobs available and who is responsible for each one.”
As for “kitchen police,” the term first appeared in the US Army in the 19th century, when it referred to enlisted men “detailed to help the cook, wash dishes, etc.,” according the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation is from Fighting Indians in the 7th United States Cavalry: Custer’s Favorite Regiment (1879), by Ami Frank Mulford:
“The sawmill men would go to the Government mill and saw lumber to be used in the different buildings, the Quartermaster’s men would report at the store-houses, the Stable Police to the stables, Kitchen Police to the kitchens and mess room.”
The dictionary’s first citation for the shorter version, “KP,” is from World War I: “K.P., Kitchen Police. A mild form of punishment.” (Army and Navy Information: Uniforms, Organization, Arms and Equipment of the Warring Powers, 1917, by Maj. De Witt Clinton Falls, National Guard, New York. Falls, an author and artist, rose through the ranks from a private to a brigadier general.)
We’ll end with an OED citation, which we’ve expanded, from Three Soldiers, a 1921 novel about World War I by John Dos Passos:
“The men, holding their oval mess kits in front of them, filed by the great tin buckets at the door, out of which meat and potatoes were splashed into each plate by a sweating K.P. in blue denims.”