Why are Police Officers Called Cops?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Police officers are often referred to as cops, but the origins of this nickname are something of a debate. It is known that, up until the 1970s, "cop" was something of a slang term, and one would refer to law enforcement officials more properly as policemen. Some argue that the term is shortened from "copper" and derives from the tin or copper badges worn by a policeman. Others say that it is an abbreviation for "Constabulary of Police."

Up until the 1970s, "cop" was considered a slang term for policemen.
Up until the 1970s, "cop" was considered a slang term for policemen.

General consensus on the word origins of "cop," however, suggest that the term is based more on the policeman's job than on his clothing or job title. In Latin, the verb capere can be defined as "to capture." In French, the verb is caper. "To cop" in English is to seize or to take, and this defines some of what a police officer does: he or she seizes or takes crooks or stops their crime "capers."

There are several theories about why policemen are referred to as cops, including one that notes the copper badges worn by policemen.
There are several theories about why policemen are referred to as cops, including one that notes the copper badges worn by policemen.

Some also believe that the Dutch word kapen, which also loosely translates to "to steal or take," is related to policemen being called coppers or cops. Essentially, the police force was there to take criminals off the streets. Since the Latin, Dutch, and French terms are all similar, and since American English especially derives language from German, French, and Latin, the specific language origin of kapen or capere creates a ready path to the slang term.

It is theorized that police officers are referred to as cops because it is an abbreviation for "Constabulary of Police."
It is theorized that police officers are referred to as cops because it is an abbreviation for "Constabulary of Police."

While it is appropriate to call members of the police force cops, and it is no longer considered derogatory, certain other terms for police officers are definitely insulting and unwelcome. While British Police might not mind being called bobbies, no police members like to be referred to as pigs or the "fuzz." Some don’t mind the term the "heat" as applied to the whole police force, but the police force does not generally take kindly to terms given to them by criminals.

The term is in such common usage now, however, that a show documenting their work on the job is called Cops. Even though J. Edgar Hoover once highly objected to the term, it is now fine to refer to a policeman or a police woman as a cop. The term "police officer" is generally most correct, since it is not gender based, and is slightly less familiar.

British police officers are often called bobbies.
British police officers are often called bobbies.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


When Sir Robert Peel organized the first patrol force in London, the officers wore copper badges. People called them coppers, which was shortened to Cop. Bobbies are called Bobbies after Robert, Bob Peel.


I learned 40 years ago it meant Constable On patrol from H R McKenzie, my old Headmaster but I prefer 5-0 because I Love Hawaii 5-0 and still hear it in some movies.


The term "community oriented policing" popular in the 1990's came from the word cop, not vice-versa. Departments used phrases like "community oriented policing, the cop on the beat"


I have a question: some people say that we can use policeman or policewoman nowadays, but I think those words are old vocabulary. Is this correct?


From the early days of policing, when it was citizens that patrolled the streets, Citizens On Patrol or COPs.


The original post is correct. Want some actual evidence? In 1704, in "Dissenting Hypocrite" by Edward Ward, the verb "cop" is used to mean seize or capture. In the 1846 session papers of the Old Bailey (London) the testimony of a police officer mentioned that criminals are calling officers "coppers". There is no evidence to support the button theory, or the badge theory. Unless someone wants to come up with any original sources?


In gaelic, a cheop (copp) is a protector, a strong defender. When illiterate Irish came over after the Potato Famine, they used gaelic words. Cop comes from Gaelic, and is a straight borrowing.


Called cops because their badges were made of copper.


There are so many myths about the etymology for this word, but most are wrong. It comes from the verb 'to cop' and started to become a noun around 1844 (first recorded use in this context)The root is the latin 'capere'. Absolutely nothing to do with brass buttons, badges, toecaps, socks full of pennies etc. Nothing to do with acronyms like 'Constable of Peace' and the like either. It's very humdrum really. [OED]{Oxford English Dictionary}


Sounds like a lot of guessing going on.


it is actually because of the copper buttons they wore in the 50's.


COP as in "Community Oriented Policing" that's what we have here in the philippines.


My grandfather said it was because of the copper toed boots they wore in the 1920's and 30's in Chicago.


I will speak definitively in saying that COP is an acronym of Constable on Patrol, my father is a police officer in the United States, as is my grandfather. Furthermore the English language, having been derived from England (what a concept) derives its etymology from England where patrolling LEOs (Law Enforcement Officials) are historically referred to as constables.


Cop actually stands for Constable on Patrol. Referring to Constables in uniform serving and protecting the community.


I'm going with the "copper" theory. Reason is, in Australia and various other countries, police have been known for decades as "bronze" because of their bronze badges.

The term "copper" has been around a lot longer than the shortened term "cop". Likewise, the term "copper" was used primarily in English-speaking countries only. The French and Dutch have various other euphemisms for the police, and neither "cop" nor "copper" are any of them.


I think it stands for commencement of proceedings.


cop. community officer protection


I was taught that it stands for Citizen On Patrol.


COP is an acronym for Chief of Police.


"cop" is a shortening of the word "coppers." In the UK, where community policing originated, police are more often referred to as "coppers" not "cops". It is almost certain the terms is in response to the use of copper items in their dress.


I was told by an old police officer, who was stationed in hell's kitchen, that the name originated with copper buttons.


This is Azalia (Uh-zale-ya),

COP can also mean Constable On Patrol.


also, "Community Orientated Policing" cops.. darbie


When I lived in Britain, I heard that COP stands for Constable of Peace.


The reason the term "cops" came into play is because the "Bobbies" in England had copper buttons on their uniform, therefore, "Coppers" became a slang term. That was eventually shortened to "COPS"


As a retired police officer we learned back in the late 60s what cop stood for. It was Constable on patrol, COP.

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