Copper (police officer)

Danae

Senior Member
Portuguese - Portugal
Hya. I have a question concerning the tone of the word "copper". I know it is rather informal. But is it offensive? I mean, would a policeman call himself a copper or react with indifference if someone called him so?;) Thanks.
 
  • Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    We don't hear "copper" in the USA (or at least I don't).

    I hear:

    Officer (formal)
    Police officer (formal)
    Cop (informal, acceptable speech; i.e., not derogatory)
    Pig (derogatory term; use with great care)
    Police Man (rapidly losing currency; polite)
    Police Woman (rapidly losing currency; polite)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    In the UK it's friendly rather than offensive, having said which anything short of Officer could be taken as overfamiliar, and, anyway, it's not a way to address a policeman, so much as a way of referring to one. A policeman might well say that he was not the only copper on a scene. The expression a fair cop - a reasonable catch: the person caught agrees that he's guilty - is reasonably common.

    So don't call a British bobby or copper anything but Officer to his or her face, but don't be surprised to hear them referred to as bobbies or coppers.
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    Well, I'm sure I've heard copper used in very old American crime movies. There is also anecdotal evidence that the full version of cop was originally used in reference to very early police officers (for example in New York), but that the usage eventually fell into disuse, being replaced by cop. (I think we are talking a long long time ago.)

    As far as I can tell copper was imported from the UK in full form, but remains in the US only in short. In fact, this is almost true in the UK nowadays, you don't hear copper much, and even cop sounds a little quaint, but that may just be to Mole ears.

    Speaking of other slang words for police, I don't think anyone has mentioned "the filth" yet.

    I doubt it's a good idea to use a slang word for police in front of any police officer anywhere in the world!
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Well, I'm sure I've heard copper used in very old American crime movies. There is also anecdotal evidence that the full version of cop was originally used in reference to very early police officers (for example in New York), but that the usage eventually fell into disuse, being replaced by cop. (I think we are talking a long long time ago.)

    I agree with you, Matching Mole. Hollywood movies in the 30s and 40s have the gangsters calling the police "coppers." It's not something we hear these days, though.

    When I was a kid (in the 60s and 70s) we also had the slang term "the fuzz" for the police. I thought was a funny term, even then.
     

    Joelline

    Senior Member
    American English
    "Copper" was still being used in the US as late as 1950. In "White Heat," a great Jimmy Cagney movie, this dialogue appears:

    [while eating a chicken leg, Cody Jarrett (played by Cagney) speaks to Parker in the trunk of the sedan]

    Cody Jarrett: How ya doin', Parker?

    Roy Parker: It's stuffy in here, I need some air.

    Cody Jarrett: Oh, stuffy, huh? I'll give ya a litte air. [pulls a gun from his pants and shoots four times into the trunk]

    Cody Jarrett: A copper, a copper, how do you like that boys? A copper and his name is Fallon. And we went for it, I went for it. Treated him like a kid brother. And I was gonna split fifty-fifty with a copper!
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    Thanks Joelline, I'm sure that is one of the movies I have heard it in. And how many more instances of "copper" in one sentence could anyone possibly want? It's like he's saying "Yes! We really did say 'copper' in the USA!"
     

    dobes

    Senior Member
    US English(Boston/NY)
    It's true it was used a very long time ago, and perhaps mostly by criminals, but people would fall down laughing today if you said, "Hey look at that copper over there!"
     
    In AE, "copper" is very old-fashioned; the shortened form "cop" is the only one used in ordinary conversation. However, people will use the older "copper", but only in a deliberately jocular way. For example, a friend of mine may say to me, in a comical, old-ganster-movie way, something like "I ain't tellin' you nothin', copper!" If anyone used the word to me as anything other than an intentional joke, I would think it extremely odd.

    American police do call themselves "cops", and it is not insulting, but it is perceived as disrespectful (and therefore insulting) if it is used in circumstances that seem to call for more formal speech. For example, if you were reading a newspaper announcement of a wedding, you would certainly expect to read "the bride's father is a police officer", and not "the bride's father is a cop".
     

    Danae

    Senior Member
    Portuguese - Portugal
    Yes, agree totally with all of you. I was just basing myself on the dictionary entry I searched :
    - British English informal, a police officer

    Even to myself, that have no english or american roots whatsoever, the word copper sounds a bit funny...:D But it is definitely far more used in Britain.
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    Copper sounds dated in BE too, it may have survived longer in the UK, but to my ears it sounds exceedingly quaint. "The bill" (short for "the old bill") has been popular in recent years (there was a TV show of that name about the police force), but I'm wondering if that is starting to sound old now. I only ever call them the police.
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    I think the term "copper" comes from the copper badges early police officers wore. I think the term may be a little dated now even in the UK. On the other hand, I believe it's still used and I find it hard to think of an another informal term that isn't derogatory.
    Other terms include:
    "five-o" - from the TV series "Hawaii Five-O"
    "The filth", "the pigs" - clearly not complimentary terms.
    "The busies" - maybe something to do with "busybody" - someone who's always looking into other people's business.
    "The cops" is used now in the UK, thanks to American influence.
     

    Danae

    Senior Member
    Portuguese - Portugal
    Interesting point Liliput! I'd never associate it with tha badges made from copper, but it's certainly logical.
     

    The Scrivener

    Banned
    England. English
    Another possible origin of the word "copper".

    Copper as slang for policeman is first found in print in 1846, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The most likely explanation is that it comes from the verb "to cop" meaning to seize, capture, or snatch, dating from just over a century earlier (1704).
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I had a Chinese roommate in college in the mid 1960's (from Shanghai) and he asked me once why people called cops "pigs".

    I told him it was an insult; that pigs were dirty and wallowed in mud.

    "No," he said, "not in China. In China they are bathed in clean water. They are as clean as cats."
     

    Hockey13

    Senior Member
    AmEnglish/German
    I think the term "copper" comes from the copper badges early police officers wore. I think the term may be a little dated now even in the UK. On the other hand, I believe it's still used and I find it hard to think of an another informal term that isn't derogatory.
    Other terms include:
    "five-o" - from the TV series "Hawaii Five-O"
    "The filth", "the pigs" - clearly not complimentary terms.
    "The busies" - maybe something to do with "busybody" - someone who's always looking into other people's business.
    "The cops" is used now in the UK, thanks to American influence.

    I've also heard and used "ponine" and "po-po." These tend to be used by people seeing the cops, and not the cops. Though I wouldn't call the terms derogatory, the context often is.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Pig = policeman is even older than copper.
    1811 Lexicon Balatronicum s.v. Pig, a China street pig; a Bow-street officer.
    Surprising - I thought that was a relatively recent term.
     

    Danae

    Senior Member
    Portuguese - Portugal
    It's interesting that the police officer in this story calls himself a pig, at a certain point... But I think he means: a pig, in its true meaning!:D And Longman Dic. is quite simple: Do not use this word (for pig) Hehehe...
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    Another possible origin of the word "copper".

    Quote:
    Copper as slang for policeman is first found in print in 1846, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The most likely explanation is that it comes from the verb "to cop" meaning to seize, capture, or snatch, dating from just over a century earlier (1704).


    That does indeed sound like the most likely explanation. You caught me out not doing my research. It's a fair cop guv.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Pig = policeman is even older than copper.
    1811 Lexicon Balatronicum s.v. Pig, a China street pig; a Bow-street officer.
    Surprising - I thought that was a relatively recent term.

    "Of course, officer, I was only calling you "Pig" in the historically correct context. No offense was intended. I do trust that you understand."
     
    "Of course, officer, I was only calling you "Pig" in the historically correct context. No offense was intended. I do trust that you understand."


    Indeed. What I, and probably most other police officers, understand is that the word is always, without exception, deliberately and intentionally insulting. Those who would argue that the word is acceptable for this or that reason are making an argument similar to a claim that that one is entitled to use a certain racial slur in polite conversation because one reads it in Huckleberry Finn, which is considered a classic piece of literature...
     

    Joelline

    Senior Member
    American English
    All of this reminds me of another line from an old movie: "Cheese it, the cops!" (meaning: "Let's get out of here, the police have arrived.")

    By the way, does anyone today use the generic term from my youth: fuzz (generally used, as I recall, for a group of .... um... uh... police officers)?
     

    AWordLover

    Senior Member
    USA English
    All of this reminds me of another line from an old movie: "Cheese it, the cops!" (meaning: "Let's get out of here, the police have arrived.")

    By the way, does anyone today use the generic term from my youth: fuzz (generally used, as I recall, for a group of .... um... uh... police officers)?

    Here is a link with many theories on the origin of fuzz. The term apparently came into vogue in the 1920s or 1930s.

    I'll make up a wrong explanation here now (remember it is wrong).
    This derives from the tongue twister, "fuzzy wuzzy was a bear, fuzzy wuzzy had no hair, fuzzy wazzy wasn't fuzzy was he" and the fact that in CB (citizen band radio) jargon the police are referred to as bears.

    I wonder if I can get mine added to the list of theories.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    What about "constable"? Do you use the word in GB?
    Yes, but usually only when speaking very politely to the constable who is just about to book you for a minor offence - "Good evening constable, I only parked my car there for a few minutes while I took my elderly mother to buy flowers for Aunt Flo's grave." That kind of thing.

    I don't mix in criminal circles, to my knowledge, but I am reasonably sure that the lookout at the bank robbery doesn't whisper into his cellphone, "I say, Laurence, but would you mind reducing the noise level from your vault penetration equipment. I do believe there is a constable approaching."
     

    Q-cumber

    Senior Member
    Yes, but usually only when speaking very politely to the constable who is just about to book you for a minor offence - "Good evening constable, I only parked my car there for a few minutes while I took my elderly mother to buy flowers for Aunt Flo's grave." That kind of thing.
    Hehe. :) Roger that, thanks! Would you call the cop "sir" in this case?
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    Hehe. :) Roger that, thanks! Would you call the cop "sir" in this case?

    For me, calling someone "sir" carries to much of an air of subservience. Since the police officer is a public servant it's more appropriate for him to refer to me as "sir" than the other way round. I would probably use "officer".
     

    Randisi.

    Senior Member
    American English; USA
    Of course, if you're a cop and someone calls you a pig, you can always turn things around and inform them of what it 'really' stands for:

    Pride, Integrity and Guts.
     

    Brioche

    Senior Member
    Australia English
    For me, calling someone "sir" carries to much of an air of subservience. Since the police officer is a public servant it's more appropriate for him to refer to me as "sir" than the other way round. I would probably use "officer".

    Funny how some people think that public servants are there to serve the public.

    The Crown has two groups to impose its will. The Armed Services and the Civil Service.

    Public Servants or Civil Servants serve the government.
     
    For me, calling someone "sir" carries to much of an air of subservience. Since the police officer is a public servant it's more appropriate for him to refer to me as "sir" than the other way round. I would probably use "officer".

    "Public servant" does not mean "a general lackey and subservient social inferior to all members of the public, no matter how ignorant, ill-bred, resentful, or boorish they may be." The term "sir" is appropriate to use when speaking to any adult man -- including police officers. As much as it may shock you, lilliput, I can assure you that I am in every way at very LEAST your social equal, and I am, without any question whatsoever, every bit as much entitled to being addressed as "sir" as you are.
     

    Matching Mole

    Senior Member
    England, English
    Bear in mind that in British have different attitudes to the use of "sir", due, probably to the effects of our class system.

    Unlike in the US (and I believe there is a recent thread on this) "sir" is not customarily used as a general honorific. It's most commonly used by workers in service industries to address customers, and by schoolchildren when addressing male teachers (and of course it is used in the uniformed services).

    Police officers address male members of the public as "sir", and in my experience they are quite scupulous about doing so, but it would not be customary for the public to address a police officer as "sir".

    On the other hand "Officer" or "constable" (or perhaps rank, if known) is the usual form of address given to police officers by the public.
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    "Public servant" does not mean "a general lackey and subservient social inferior to all members of the public, no matter how ignorant, ill-bred, resentful, or boorish they may be." The term "sir" is appropriate to use when speaking to any adult man -- including police officers. As much as it may shock you, lilliput, I can assure you that I am in every way at very LEAST your social equal, and I am, without any question whatsoever, every bit as much entitled to being addressed as "sir" as you are.

    I apologize, no offence was intended. The concept of social inequality is preisely why I'm unhappy about the use of "sir". No-one is denying that the characteristics you describe can just as easily be found among police officers as any other cross-section of the population - we are all people. I understand that the use of "sir" is rather different in the US.
    As MM pointed out above, "sir" is rarely used in BE. All of the exceptions I can think of are in professional settings - people in jobs where they deal with members of the public; e.g. police officers, people in customer service, etc. British police officers, professional as they are, use this very polite and formal address when addressing members of the public, at least until they have a name. As the police officer is in a position of authority, his/her use of "sir" is only polite does not carry the same air of subservience, as when used by the other party. On the whole, I think a British PC might become suspicious if you referred to him as "sir".
    As I stated earlier, "officer" is suitably respectful, and the advantage over "constable" is that you don't have to check his/her rank before using it.
     

    liliput

    Senior Member
    U.K. English
    Funny how some people think that public servants are there to serve the public.

    The Crown has two groups to impose its will. The Armed Services and the Civil Service.

    Public Servants or Civil Servants serve the government.

    The government is elected by the people and is also there to serve the people.
    Thankfully the power of The Crown is almost completely symbolic these days.
     

    Hockey13

    Senior Member
    AmEnglish/German
    Of course, if you're a cop and someone calls you a pig, you can always turn things around and inform them of what it 'really' stands for:

    Pride, Integrity and Guts.

    :rolleyes:

    That depends on your point of view. Etymologically, I think it's fair to assume that that is indeed not what it stands for. To those of us more in the middle, a police officer is a terrible evil in a "free" society, but a necessary one.
     

    Hockey13

    Senior Member
    AmEnglish/German
    Funny how some people think that public servants are there to serve the public.

    The Crown has two groups to impose its will. The Armed Services and the Civil Service.

    Public Servants or Civil Servants serve the government.

    Please tell me you didn't just write that...

    I won't get into a debate about the political philosophy of what a government is because that would be off topic, but you do see the linguistic wall you've just run into, don't you?
     

    fnordster

    New Member
    British English
    In London/British English useage there is a conjunction of Copper, and Rozzer being currently used.
    "Cozzer" has a slightly more rogueish use than the quaint Copper.
    It is used in the Ian Dury song "itinerant child" and in the opening sequence of "lock stock and two smoking barrels"
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    Copper: familiar form of COP (Constable on Patrol)

    This seems unlikely to me. Cop in this sense is known to have first appeared in print in 1859 (source, Oxford English Dictionary entry "cop, n.5") while copper in this sense first appeared in print in 1846 (source, OED entry "copper, n.4"). It seems likely that cop is a shortened form of copper, which the OED suggests is derived a verb cop meaning "to capture."

    The OED points out that "other conjectures have been offered," but my take on it is that, since there is a great tendency in folk etymology to derive words from acronyms but most such derivations have been disproved, we should take any acronym-based explanation of a word's history with a grain of salt unless it has very strong evidence in its favor.
     

    Headbolt

    New Member
    English
    Common misconception although more poetic than the truth, it's certainly what I would like to beleive was true.

    The usage of "copper" to describe an Officer Of The Law is actually more descriptive of their activities. It comes from the latin word "capere" meaning "To Capture".

    capere is actually a more recent form of the old word "capio", although the term "more recent" is only relative the the Latin language as capere has been in use for a few hundred years.


    By the way, incase anyone was interested, although perhaps this is for another thread, the word "Policeman" is derived from the old Greek word "Polis" meaning city, making an Officer a "Man of the City" or "Man for The City"
     
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    franc 91

    Senior Member
    English - GB
    A typical Engish name for a children's chasing game is 'Cops and Robbers' and there's a book of the same name by Alan Ahlberg. There was a television programme called 'The Bill', and of course there are bobbies (putting more bobbies on the street etc) which comes from Sir Robert Peel as does peelers which is no longer used. If it's the case you would address a policeman as Constable (he has PC followed by a number on his shoulder or he should have - I see that when they're kettling they try to hide their numbers)
     

    ribran

    Senior Member
    English - American
    I am surprised that so many people here think of copper as old-fashioned. I use and hear it all the time, and I am young.
     
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