Claim: The slang police term ‘cop’ derives from an acronym for the phrase ‘constable on patrol.’
[Collected via e-mail, September 2001]
My father told me that the word “cop” came from the words constable on patrol. Any truth to that?
[Collected via e-mail, April 2007]
What is the origin of the word “cop”? Wikipedia says that it is an acronym for “constable on patrol”. I have personally herd the phrase “citizen on patrol”. However, there’s another story that in early NYC, officers were noted for having copper buttons on their uniforms, so the word “copper” became slang for an officer which gets shortened to “cop”. That actually makes more sense to me, meaning that “constable on patrol” is probably just a backronym to make a derogatory slang term into an acceptable one.
Origins: While there is something intrinsically pleasing to the notion of the familiar and widely-used word ‘cop’ having entered the language in unusual fashion, whatever we may want to believe, it just didn’t happen that way.
“Cop” as a slang term for “police officer” is neither a shortening of “constable on patrol” nor of “citizen on patrol.” We’ve said it before, but it bears saying again: only a few
common words truly have acronymic pedigrees, and virtually all of those date from the
The word ‘cop’ also did not enter the slang lexicon as an allusion to the highly polished buttons (which some say were made of copper) on American turn-of-the-century police uniforms or on those worn by the first London police force of the 1820s. It also doesn’t refer to the metal various police badges or shields were made from.
Instead, the police-specific use of “cop” made its way into the English language in far more languid fashion. “Cop” has long existed as a verb meaning “to take or seize,” but it didn’t begin to make the linguistic shifts necessary to turn it into a casual term for “police officer” until the
Barbara “and they’ve been called many things since then” Mikkelson
Last updated: 1 May 2015
Barnhart, Robert K. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Larousse Kingfisher Chambers Inc., 2000. ISBN 0-550-14230-4 (p. 219). Hendrickson, Robert. Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Facts on File, 1997. ISBN 0-86237-122-7 (p. 175). The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-861258-3.