They went that-a-way, back toward Wall Street.

Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me the origin of the word “cop” or point me in the right direction? — Denny.

Right direction? Sure. Personally, I’m just glad you’re not writing to ask, as a dismaying number of people do, how to become a detective, “the real kind, like on TV.” I usually tell them that the best way is to just keep watching lots of TV. I should get an award for keeping those people on their couches. But the truly scary thing is when people send me long accounts of crimes they want me to solve. I forward those to Matlock.

I’m assuming that you’re asking about “cop” in the sense of “police officer,” rather than the 15th century word “cop” meaning “spider” (an alternate form of which, “cob,” gave us “cobweb”). Fun fact: when I was growing up, referring to a police-person as a “cop” was considered disrespectful, almost akin to swearing; the preferred term was “policeman” or, later, “police officer,” which always struck me as both ungainly and creepily deferential. Then again, I’ve yet to get used to the term “Homeland Security.” I keep imagining Dorothy in Oz saying, “There’s no place like Homeland” with the theme from The Sound of Music playing.

There are, as you might expect, a number of explanations frequently offered for “cop” as slang for a person of the police persuasion, a term which first appeared in print in the mid-19th century and can be assumed to have been in oral use long before that. Perhaps the most popular theory traces “cop” to the longer form “copper” (which appeared at roughly the same time) and suggests that “copper” and “cop” originally referred to copper buttons, supposedly a feature of early police uniforms. Alternatively, “copper” is said to come from the copper badges supposedly worn by police at that time, a theory often elaborated by positing copper badges for sergeants, brass for patrolmen, and silver for higher ranks. As you can tell from the frequency of the word “supposedly” above, neither of those theories has withstood investigation. Nor has the runner-up, the theory that “cop” was originally an acronym for “Constable on Patrol.” Acronyms were vanishingly rare before World War Two, let alone in the mid-19th century, and there’s absolutely no evidence for that one.

Fortunately, the fact that such dandy “copper” theories have come a cropper, as Sherlock Holmes might say, does not mean the trail of “cop” and “copper” has gone cold. “Cop” as slang for “police officer” almost certainly comes ultimately from the Latin verb “capere,” meaning “to snatch or seize” (which also gave us the verb “to capture”). “Cop” as a verb first appeared in the early 18th century with the meaning “to capture, lay ahold of, nab,” and is still used in this sense in such phrases as “cop a quick meal” or “cop a nap” (“The privileged driver, on dropping his fare … almost invariably ‘cops’ a job on his way back,” 1868). The verb “to cop” also was (and still is) used to mean “to steal,” and in such phrases as “to cop a plea” (take an advantageous deal in court) and “cop out” (to take an opportunity to abandon a job, one’s principles, etc.).

It’s likely that the use of “cop” by criminals to mean “to steal” led more than a few police officers in the 19th century to reject the term, perhaps regarding it as an implicit allegation of dishonesty. But the use of “cop” in the “police” sense comes from the underworld use of “cop” to mean “capture,” especially arrest by the police (“Prisoner said, ‘Yes, I am the man. I am glad you have copped me.'” 1888). A “cop” in this sense was simply someone who “cops” criminals, making “copper” a job description completely unrelated to the metal “copper.”

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