Q. As a child, I went to school in East St. Louis. My friend's father was a policeman, but he didn't like being called a "cop." Now, I always remember that when I see the word. So, why do we call policemen "cops"?
-- V.L., of Red Bud
A. OK, Sarge, let's bring in the usual suspects for a lineup:
* Cop is short for copper, a nickname given to the early London police (or some other metropolitan force), because their uniforms sported large copper buttons.
* Cop is short for copper, because those same lawmen wore star-shaped copper badges.
* Cop is actually an acronym, standing for Constable On Patrol, Constabulary Of Police or Chief Of Police. As the story goes, when police booked a suspect, they'd sign their reports as "John Q. Smith, C.O.P."
Sorry, but all of these stories are like those red herrings they trot out during the first 20 minutes of a "Law & Order" episode to throw you off the scent. With nary a shred of evidence for any, they're as phony as those million-dollar inheritance email scams.
The real reason is much less, shall we say, arresting. And, if you go back to the term's true beginnings, it may not seem as derogatory as many make it out to be today.
Way back in 1700, "cop" entered the English language as a slang verb meaning "to catch or capture." Just how this came about is unclear, according to "The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories," but there are theories:
Some think we may have borrowed it from the Dutch "kapen," meaning "to take or steal." Many, however, think it came from the French "caper," meaning "to seize or capture." Either way, the English "copper" came to mean someone who seizes something.
And what do police do? They try to seize or capture the crooks. So already by 1844, "cop" appeared in print as a verb to describe what police did to the bad guys. Two years later, the noun "copper" became a synonym for a police officer as a person who cops -- or catches -- criminals. It didn't take long before they cut copper to just plain cop as a noun.
So, since 1859, the police have been called cops in the media, not as a sign of disrespect, but another way to describe what they do. However, perhaps because of its harsh sound or the fact that it remains classified as slang even after 150 years, our brave officers in blue still may find it disparaging. That's probably why "copping a plea" and "copping out" have similar negative connotations.
Hey, as long as we're doing a perp walk here, let's look at "flatfoot," "fuzz" and "pigs," too, just for fun. Flatfoot is easy -- it merely conveys the idea that police eventually would develop flat feet from walking a beat over the years. Obviously, this was long before police cars with computers and cell phones.
The history of fuzz, however, seems to be as blurry as the word's more common definition. Some have claimed it came from the beards police wore or mishearing the cry of "Feds!" to signal a raid, but these seem highly unlikely.
Instead, the 1931 book "American Tramp and Underworld Slang" theorizes that "fuzz" came from "fuss," because you may remember how "fussy" Joe Friday was to get all the facts, ma'am, on "Dragnet." But Evan Morris, the Word Detective, suggests that years ago being called fuzzy was synonymous with being "unmanly, incompetent and soft."
"How better to insult the police, after all, than to mock them as ineffectual?" Morris asks.
"Pigs" may hold the biggest surprise. Those of a certain age probably associate this term with student protests of the '60s and '70s. But believe it or not, the Oxford English Dictionary says the term was first used in 1811 to describe a Bow Street Runner, an early police force in London. Before that, it had been used in the 1500s for a person who was heartily disliked, so it's no surprise that the no-goodniks would use it as a term of contempt for police.
Finally, let's go across the pond, where the French call their police "gendarmes," short for "gens d'arme (people with weapons), which ranked just below knight in medieval armies. Of course, we shouldn't forget Robert Peel, who created the modern police force, giving rise to the "bobby" in England and "Peelers" in Northern Ireland.
Not to be confused, of course, with Emmapeelers, those almost criminally slinky outfits Diana Rigg wore on "The Avengers."
What well-known 19th century military leader reportedly was an accomplished yo-yoist?
Answer to Saturday's trivia: The Dodgers hold the unwanted distinction of being no-hit the most times -- three. In Brooklyn, they fell to the Yankees' Don Larsen in that unforgettable game five of the 1956 World Series. Then, at Chavez Ravine, they were mowed down by Cincinnati's Tom Browning in 1988 and Montreal's Dennis Martinez in 1991.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com.