Ask the Edmonds Cop: Speaking of cop, where did the term come from?


Edmonds Police Sgt. Shane Hawley shares some history on how the word “cop” was applied to police officers.

7 Replies to “Ask the Edmonds Cop: Speaking of cop, where did the term come from?”

  1. I have understood for years that “cop” originated in England as a acronym for constable on patrol. Nothing negative about that.

    Also, you referenced the English bobbies. That is a slang term – bobby – for a member of the London Metropolitan Police which was established by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.


  2. “The word “cop” is an old Anglo-Saxon verb for catch, grab or capture, deriving from a noun “cop” dating back at least to the 1100s. Some sources say this word related to the Dutch word kapen, with a similar meaning. The earliest written documentation of the form “cop” as a verb in English dates to 1704.
    “A new noun form developed form this verb, giving us “copper.” This form “copper” thus was the noun for “one who cops.” Some sources document the use of the verb “cop” used with the meaning “arrest” in 1844, and suggests this was the source of the specific use of “cop” to refer to a law officer.
    “…The first documented use of the term copper for a police officer is in 1846. The Oxford English Dictionary documents this usage. Most sources report that the first documented use of the short form cop as applied to a police officer is in 1859. Snopes finds that the term “copper” was used in London for police by 1846.”


  3. I too find the study of word origins (etymology) most interesting. I first had the benefit of four years of Latin in high school, but what really made that gel for me was a class covering the Greek and Latin roots of English at the UW, followed by another on the history of the English language.

    The unfortunate fact is that this study of etymology is often greatly obscured by the fog of time, especially so for words deriving from argot or slang. Frequently, the trail ends with various plausible and very well-educated guesses among which folks can choose their favorite theory, e.g., cop in this instance. (Personally, with my educational bias, I like Officer Hawley’s Latin source.)

    Perhaps most interesting of all is how quickly this fog can gather. The name ‘Oscar’ for the statue given at the Academy Awards is a great example here. As familiar as The Oscars are to us all, and being a relatively new thing (only since 1929), no one can say with certainty how the name arose. We have only competing claims, one of which belongs to Oscar winner Bette Davis herself.


    1. Personally, I’ll always take a Latin or Greek root – while admitting to a fondness for Scandinavian word roots. But a “chester” always outscores a “vic” or a “burg.”


  4. The word “cop” was a derogatory word in 1969. My story of using the word is a bit unusual. I was summoned to appear in San Francisco’s Superior Courthouse as a result of a ticket issued to me for my dog being off leash in Golden Gate Park. The judge asked me to tell her what happened and in my reply I used the word “cop” to describe the police officer who issued the ticket. (I did not use a malicious tone.) The judge became so angry that she pointed and barked at me to never to use the word again and proceeded to order the court to put me in jail for an hour (with actual criminals). I was 19 years old and after all this time I still practically stutter when I say the word. )
    When I was released and ordered to stand in front of the judge for a tongue-lashing, she gave me a one year probation (for my dog off-leash). The charges were dismissed after six months when the judge was not re-elected to the bench and my probation officer agreed the whole thing was ridiculous. (A lot of people in those days used the word “pig” which, I feel, was absolutely rude and offensive.)
    Thanks for bringing up the word to trigger my memory. ✌️


  5. Thank you Teresa and Sgt. Hawley for the information. The history of the acronym is wonderful and to learn that it no longer considered derogatory, especially by those of that serve, is educational.

    My parents raised me in a manner that said to never refer to a member of law enforcement with anything other than “Officer, Sir or Ma’am”. I still get stuck on your rank, to show proper respect. All of you have earned that rank, so why not be called by it? Oh well, I’ll eventually get over my hang up.

    Even though Sgt. Hawley said he wouldn’t look good in the hat in the graphic, could it be any worse than his ugly sweater?


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