Several popular etymologies for cop exist for this word now commonly used for policeman. One offers it up as an acronym standing for “Constable on Patrol” or “Chief of Police.” Another states that the first police officers in London (or perhaps another city–it varies in the telling) had copper buttons on their uniforms. Still, another source asserts copper badges, not copper buttons, gave them the name. Some of the first New York City police officers reportedly wore badges made from copper. The most common stories trace cop or copper to the copper buttons or copper police badges.
The police “sense” of the terms probably originates from the Latin word capere, meaning, “to seize,” which also gave us capture. Cop as a slang term, meaning “to catch, snatch, or grab” appeared in English in the 18th century. Ironically, it was originally used among thieves; a copper was a street thief. By the middle of the 19th century, criminals apprehended by the police were said to have themselves been copped, caught by the coppers or cops. And there you have the etymology of cop. “Case closed,” as the cops say.
Or, is it? Lexicographers and etymologists have long disputed the actual origin of the verb copper. It either derives from the Dutch kapen, meaning “to take” or from the Old Frisian capia, meaning, “to buy.” It may even derive from the French caper, meaning “to take”, which also comes from the Latin capere.
To make matters even more complicated, the acronym COP has many meanings, most of which are unrelated to law enforcement. Following are just a few: COP Copper; COP Chief Of Police; COP College of Pharmacy (Xavier University of Louisiana); COP Coefficient Of Performance; COP Code of Practice; COP Coil on Plug (automotive ignition); COP Court of Protection (UK); COP Cost of Production (agriculture); COP Citizens On Patrol; COP ConocoPhillips (stock symbol); COP Chief of Party (various locations); COP Canada Olympic Park; COP Congressional Oversight Panel (US Senate).
For me, I’m somewhat partial to Constable on Patrol. It has been said that the Constables back in jolly ol’ England went to the livery stable and checked out a horse, lantern, and night stick. In a record book, they would write “constable on patrol” and record the time they went to work. Like so many others, I was told that eventually someone got tired of writing all of this and shortened the entry to COP and then entered the time. We may never really get to close the case on the origin of this little word.
Constable Clark, your Constable on Patrol
Learn all about your constable by going to his new web site: ConstableMitchellClark.net