In October 2004, Twisty Tongue dealt with “cop.” Reader Don McLaren missed that because he’s quite new to this column.
In his April letter, McLaren passed along an explanation for cop as shared by an RCMP friend who heard it during basic training. McLaren wrote: “In olden days when horses were the method of transportation for knights, the animals were kept in stables under the care of a man who became known as the Count of the Stable. Over time the word was reduced to constable. As policemen became common, they were seen patrolling public areas ... A policeman doing this job was called a constable on patrol. Eventually the first letter of each word was used and we now have COP.”
McLaren never tried to verify this explanation since he trusted the RCMP to pass on only valid information.
Unfortunately, this interpretation is incorrect although it does contain some elements of truth.
Cop isn’t of American origin as often suggested. It occurred in British English as early as 1704 and, by 1859, was slang for “policeman.” At that time, the verb, to cop, meant “to catch or arrest someone.” This “catcher” was soon known as a copper. Quickly, copper was shortened to cop — a noun. Oxford Slang dates copper to 1846 and the noun, cop, to 1859.
Here’s where confusion sets in. Middle English borrowed the Old French word, cunestable (count of the stable; marshal). This Count of the Stable was chief officer of a household or court, responsible for the administration of his ruler’s military. About 1597, the cunestable, now spelled constable, also became an officer of the peace. Thus, constables were associated with law enforcement and peacekeeping in a monarch’s immediate vicinity (OED).
Although cop’s origin is often misconstrued, we do know it isn’t an acronym for “constable on patrol.” Nor is it a reference to the copper buttons on a London bobby’s uniform. These ideas are easy to disprove because to cop and cop were used in English before there were bobbies or patrolling constables.
As well, acronyms (first letters used to form pronounceable words) aren’t nearly as old as cop. It’s believed ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) is the world’s first acronym, but ANZAC is dated only to the Battle of the Dardanelles in 1915.
Some linguists suggest cop arises from the Old Frisian capia (to buy) because capia was a euphemism for “pirate.” The idea of nabbing and catching something is evident. In Dutch, capia became Kapen.
Still, most scholars trace cop to the Latin capere (to capture). It entered Middle English as cop from the French cap. This makes logical sense since a police officer’s job is to capture lawbreakers.
Cop was viewed as slang when it appeared in English all those hundreds of years ago, and is still considered slang. Naturally, other slang expressions formed around it — to cop out, to cop a plea, and cop-shop, to mention a few.
As slang, cop should be confined to conversation and not used in formal writing. But don’t tell that to the Winnipeg Sun.