Why are Police Officers Called Cops?
If you’re from the United States, or you’ve spent any time watching popular US television shows like Law and Order, CSI, Criminal Minds, and so many others, you’ll have heard the word “cop” used interchangeably with “police officer.” Police in the US have many different nicknames, with different connotations, but “cop” is by far the most popular.
So where does “cop” come from, and why is it so ubiquitous that even law enforcement officers use it when describing their jobs? Read on to find out the origins of this word!
Nicknames for police in the US
The use of these monikers varies throughout different regions in the US. But by far, the most common and oldest nickname given to police officers is “cop.” “Cop” is a name used so frequently and widely in the US, that it has become synonymous with “police” in the dictionary and is even used by law enforcement officers themselves.
Theories on why police are called “cops”Like most slang, it’s impossible to trace the exact origins of the word “cops” being used to describe law enforcement, but there are a great many inaccurate theories. Here are two of our favorites:
- Constable on Patrol
This theory says that “cop” is actually an abbreviation of “constable on patrol.” This theory is an interesting use of shorthand; however, it is unlikely to be true because very few words in our current lexicon derive from acronyms. Additionally, “constable” is not a common title for a law enforcement officer in the US and is therefore unlikely to be the origin.
- Copper Buttons and Badges
This theory says that “cop” derives from “copper” which was given as a nickname to police because of their shiny copper badges and buttons on their uniforms. As fun as this origin is, this is also unlikely to be true. There is little evidence that copper was widely used in police uniforms. It is actually more likely that this story came about after the fact, as a way of explaining the use of the moniker “copper.”
Origin of the word “cop”: the truth behindWhile the theories above are fun and interesting, the truth of the matter is that “cop” in reference to police officers, actually developed from the verb usage of “cop” meaning “to take or seize".
“Cop” was first used in place of “to arrest” around 1844. The phrase quickly took hold, and as being “copped” began to be synonymous with being arrested, the word usage expanded to include the person doing the arresting, the “copp-er.” By 1846, police officers were being called “coppers” in everyday conversation. By 1859, “copper” had been shortened, ironically back to the original word “cop,” as law enforcement officers continue to be called to this day.
The Fuzz and 5-0: how they become popular
“5-0” (pronounced five-oh) became a popular nickname after the television show Hawaii Five-O which aired from 1968 to 1980. “Five-o” referred to the Hawaiian police force in the show, based on Hawaii being the fiftieth state to join the union. Though inaccurate, as Hawaiian police officers in real life have no such designation, the nickname became popular among fans and is still used to refer to police across the country to this day.
This moniker does not have a clear origin. It may refer to the red flashing lights on police cars, or the metaphorical “heat” or pressure applied by police when interrogating suspects. “Heat” is also a common nickname for guns in the US, so the term may derive from the fact that police are often armed.
Boys in Blue
This nickname comes from classic police uniforms, which were usually navy blue. While uniform colors vary these days, the term “blue” has stuck around.
Older nicknames for police in the US
Though these have fallen out of fashion, there have been plenty of other nicknames used for police throughout American history. Here are a few interesting ones:
This was often used in reference to detectives who have to work stealthily to solve crimes. In the 19th century, gum rubber became popular to use on the bottoms of soft-soled shoes. The design of these shoes had a side-effect of making the wearer’s steps very quiet, so they were able to sneak around easily, which is where the nickname comes from.
Smokey the Bear is a decades-old symbol used by the US Forest Service to encourage people to prevent wildfires, still familiar to most Americans today. But what some might not know is that “Smokey” was formerly used as a nickname for law enforcement officers because their uniform hats closely resembled the ones worn by Smokey the Bear! The film, Smokey and the Bandit, released in 1977, includes the slang term for police in its title, and increased the nickname’s use for a period of time.
- The Man
“The Man” is a more general term that originated out of the free-spirited movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, and referenced any authority figure, especially those related to the government. While not just referring to police, “the man” was anyone in a position of power over the public. This phrase has died down in popularity, but it still gets used today!
Nicknames for police around the world
It’s not just in the United States that police have been given some interesting nicknames, but worldwide. Here are three interesting monikers from across the globe:
- Bobbies – UK
The UK slang term “bobbies” comes from the founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel. Peel founded the London police in 1829, and they were quickly called “bobbies” after his own nickname, “Bob.” You might also hear them called “peelers” for the same reason!
- Mounties - Canada
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is well-known worldwide for its policemen who patrol “mounted” on horseback. Though police in Canada do not routinely ride horseback anymore, they are still often called “mounties.”
- Pikachu – Vietnam
This nickname comes from the yellow uniform that traffic police in Vietnam have, which people think makes them look like the popular cartoon character “Pikachu” from the Pokémon show and video games.
Garmont’s T8 LE 2.0 Boot
Regardless of what you call them, at Garmont we understand the difficult and important work that police officers do, which is why we created shoes designed specifically for their needs.
Our T8 LE 2.0 is a lightweight boot designed to provide all-day comfort and maneuverability, whether at the station, patrolling, or at an emergency scene. This 8-inch boot has polishable full grain leather, a side-zipper for easy on-and-off, as well as closed eyelets and a Velcro strap over the zipper to ensure that everything remains snag-proof. With the T8 LE 2.0 you can feel confident that your feet are protected and supported, no matter the situation.
- ‘One Time’: Police Slang Words And How Cops Got Those Nicknames (newsone.com)
- Does Cop = 'Constable on Patrol'? | Snopes.com
- List of police-related slang terms - Wikipedia
- Some Slang Words for Police (yourdictionary.com)
- The History of Modern Policing (thoughtco.com)
- Why Are Police Called The Fuzz, 12, Coppers, One Time, And Popo? (webnews21.com)