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Why Is a Police Officer Called a Cop?

Updated on February 7, 2020
revmjm profile image

Margaret Minnicks has been an online writer for many years. She writes articles that are interesting to her readers.

The Word 'Cops'

If you have talked to anyone who has ever had dealings with the police, you have probably heard them use the word "cop" instead of saying policeman or police officer. The word is used so often these days that everyone knows who a cop refers to.

If you have seen "Law & Order" or any of the other criminal series on television, the word cop comes up quite often.

People know about the word, but they don't know the origin of the word. So, why do people call police officers cops?

Names Used for a Police Officer

A police officer might be called a policeman, policewoman, police agent, or cop. In most countries, "police officer" is the generic term no matter what rank the person has.

Most people are familiar with the terms even though some of them are negative ones.

Cop is Not about Copper Badges or Buttons

Some people have theorized that police officers are called cops because the copper badges police officers carry. While that might sound reasonable, it can't be right because today most of the badges aren't made of copper at all. Instead, their badges are usually silver.

Another theory referred to the small piece of copper metal the officers would carry in the palm of their hand. This usage of "copper" got shortened to "cop." The first documented use of the term copper for a police officer was in 1846.

When the term "copper" was originally used in England, it was used as a slang word for a police officer. It was used to refer to the abuse by criminals. It was considered highly derogatory by the police themselves. The word is so derogatory in England that it has become illegal to use it.

The word "cop" is a slang word and is considered impolite for that term to be used. Usually, it is the criminal or the bad boys who fear being caught by the police that called police officers cops. Today, police themselves have accepted and use the word for themselves.

The term copper was the original, unshortened word, originally used in Britain to mean "someone who captures."

There is a common mistake that the word "cop" comes from the copper buttons on the uniforms police officers wear.

Other Theologies

A more reasonable theory is because the word "cop" comes from the Anglo-Saxon verb for "catch, grab or capture." It comes from the noun dating back to the 1100s.

Some sources document the use of the verb "cop" used with the meaning "arrest." In 1844, the word had come to refer to a law officer.

Acceptable Origin of the Word "Cop"

The word "cop" doesn’t refer to the metal various police badges or shields that police carry. Neither does it refer to a copper pipe they carry in their hands.

In 1844, “cop” was a verb meaning “to take, to seize, to arrest or to take into police custody." It is another noun for the police doing these things. In 1846, police used to be referred to as "coppers." By 1859, the word was shortened from "copper" to "cop" that's still in existence today.

Other Names for a Police Officer

Many slang words are used for the police. A lot of them are considered derogatory or offensive. "Cop" is the most common one and is the most acceptable. It is often used by the police themselves, but are mostly used by criminals, prisoners, or by the general public.

There are other derogatory names for a police officer. The word "pig" is one of the worst. It is negative, demeaning and derogatory with its origin dating back to the 19th century.

The Word "Policemen" Shouldn't Be Used

Because there are so many females on the police force, the words "policeman" or "policemen" are no longer acceptable. The word "police" can be either masculine or feminine.

Also, the word "police" can be either singular or plural. It takes a plural verb, such as "The police are coming."

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    • aziza786 profile image

      Zia Uddin 

      14 months ago from UK

      Found this hub very interesting.

    • revmjm profile imageAUTHOR

      Margaret Minnicks 

      2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Robert, I just respect them no matter what they are called. Thanks for our input.

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 

      2 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      In turn, Margaret, you are of course correct about "cop" being a verb meaning "to grasp" or "to seize." The Yiddish verb "chapen" has the same meaning; it must derive from the same Germanic root. The government-hired thugs who kidnapped Jewish boys to impress them into the Czar's army in the early 19th Century were called "chapers."

      On another linguistic note, whereas we disrespectfully refer to the police as "pigs," the French term is "les vaches"--cows. I have no idea why.

    • revmjm profile imageAUTHOR

      Margaret Minnicks 

      2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks, Ken, for reading and commenting about this. I am always interested in the origin of words. Sometimes the theories about their origins are also interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      2 years ago from Florida

      "Some people have theorized that police officers are called cops because the copper badges police officers carry. While that might sound reasonable, it can't be right because today most of the badges aren't made of copper at all. Instead, their badges are usually silver."

      Hello Margaret, I was in the American Police Hall of Fame a short while back and one display actually explained the history of the term Cop or Copper, and in terms of American history it had to do with the first American police, who were a private police force in NY, that soon after they came into being began to wear Copper Shields/Star Badges.

      There was some additional explanation to the slang terms that were associated with Cop that came after, having to do with being arrested while committing a crime, but I have forgotten the exact terminology given for examples.

      Anyways, according to the APHF that was where the term came from here in America, the fact that they wore copper badges.

    • revmjm profile imageAUTHOR

      Margaret Minnicks 

      2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Yes, Robert, you are correct. COP is an acronym that stands for Constable on Patrol. That's one theory, but "cop" is a word and not an acronym in the case I refer to in my article.

    • Robert Levine profile image

      Robert Levine 

      2 years ago from Brookline, Massachusetts

      I had thought "cop" was an acronym for "constable on patrol."

    • revmjm profile imageAUTHOR

      Margaret Minnicks 

      2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      WOW! RTalloni, what wonderful comments. Thanks so much for reading and responding. I have never gotten into the habit of calling police officers cops. It just never seemed right to do so.

    • profile image

      RTalloni 

      2 years ago

      This topic is actually an important one to discuss. It's interesting to learn that it's illegal to use the word cop when speaking of the police in England.

      Word usage changes with time and culture so, as with many groups, I'm thinking that if the police themselves do not mind being called a cop then it's okay, though I would not do it. However, that the entertainment industry promoted "cop" makes it suspect, excuse the pun. :)

      Showing them respect as law enforcement officers is good for a community. They are just people trained to do a job and the majority in their profession want to do a good job for the good of their communities.

      Respecting them helps them police their own who may do things that disrespect their profession. It helps them do their job and helps their leadership discover breakdowns in their staffs.

      It is a mistaken notion among too many that to respect others means being their doormat when the truth is that true respect means educating oneself on any matter needing to addressed and then responding maturely to all parties involved.

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