News >> Browse Articles >> Op / Ed


Interesting Origins of Police Words

Interesting Origins of Police Words

By Mignon Fogarty

March 11, 2010

If Only Graffito Were as Nice as Gelato

Who knew? Graffiti is the plural of the Italian word graffito, which means “an inscription or design.” It comes from a Latin word meaning “to write, scratch, or scribble.” In English, graffiti can be either singular or plural. You won’t hear graffito much around the station; archaeologists do use it, however, to describe a drawing or writing they find on ruins.

Hop in the Paddy Wagon

The term paddy wagon originated in the 1930s and is thought to come from the nickname for people of Irish descent: paddies. At the time, many police officers were Irishmen. Paddy itself is a nickname for Patrick.

Where Did Cop Come From?

Interestingly, cop can be both a noun meaning police officer and a verb meaning “to steal, take, or seize”: The kid copped a piece of candy. The origin is uncertain. The current meanings may be derived from the Latin word for “catch, seize, or capture”: capere. The “police” meaning is thought to have originated in America the 1850s.

As Clear as the Snitch on Your Face

To call someone a snitch can mean they are an informer or a thief. The “tattletale” meaning came first, originating around 1785, and the “pilfer” meaning came later, around 1900. In the crime world, “snitch” was slang for “nose,” and some sources believe that the “nose” meaning was the inspiration for the “informer” meaning. The “stealing” meaning may be a derivative of snatch, which itself comes from a Dutch word for “grasp or desire.”

Grammar Tip: Your Fellow Plurals

When you’re making compound nouns plural, the rule is to make the most important word plural:

• Deputy sheriffs • Attorneys general

Mignon Fogarty is the author of the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She also produces a free Grammar Girl podcast on iTunes and a free daily e-mail newsletter that can be found at

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 5 years ago

    OK, here we go again.
    It is true that the English Cops are -still- called "Constables"
    In the 19Th and early 20th Centuries, most jurisdictions, specially in the East Coast used to call Police Officers "Constables"
    Even today, some jurisdictions here in the U.S and Canada. use that denomination.
    But the slang "COP" did not originated in England. It's origins can be traced, as I previously posted, to the way NY Police Officers used to sign the Memo Book at the end of the daily tour; after their name with the abreviation: C.O.P., for "Constable On Patrol".
    The word itself did not originated in England, but in New York.

  • Photo_user_banned_big


    about 5 years ago


    Martin I'm with you on the COP definition. As far as the importance of words, it refers to the gramatical importance. What kind of attorneys? -General- attorneys. What kind of sheriffs?
    -Deputy- sheriffs. It doesn't always make a whole lot of sense, but think of how the military lists inventory items in order of importance:
    Rifle, M-16A2
    Blanket, Wool, Green
    Magazine, M-9, 9mm
    The less important word is the one which is descriptive of the other. Just FYI.

  • 33-49773-f_max50


    about 5 years ago


    I have personally always liked the acronyms....

    Special Weapons and Tactics = S.W.A.T
    Drug Enforcement Administration = D.E.A.
    Fugitive Apprehension Response Team = F.A.R.T

    ......Oh yeah....L.O.L.
    Laughing Dog Pictures, Images and Photos

  • Metacchandler_max50


    about 5 years ago


    Cop is Constable on patrol

  • Ghost_hunter_max50


    about 5 years ago


    "COP" originally came from the British police, for "Constable on Patrol"

  • Fallenherobadge-3-1_max50


    about 5 years ago


    Cop= Constable on Patrol (England)

    Paddy (wagon)= Paddy is a pejorative nickname for males of Irish extraction. Because the first Irish to arrive in the USA were viewed as drunks, I'm told the name paddy wagon developed purportedly because lots of Irish males were the passengers.

    Deputy Sheriffs? Attorneys general?

    Since when is the elected Sheriff any more important than their Deputies?

    Ditto for Attorneys General.

    Who is the rocket scientist that determined attorneys are more important than generals?

    All this is nice trivia, I suppose. But...

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 5 years ago


    Pretty good...I was alway under the impression that cop was derived from copper, a nickname of the first NYPD officers, who had copper badges. Who knows where theses really come from.

  • 71476_max50


    about 5 years ago


    Thanks for the Snopes link - anyone still wondering should check that out. ;) I kinda doubt that any of these words have multiple origins, even though many of us recall multiple stories on how each term came about. Most of them do seem to be derivations of English language terminology of the 1800's and early 1900's, rather than acronyms or more modern abbreviations. For professional reasons I'm sure, they didn't mention "pig"... anyone know where that police slang came from? A veteran officer clued me in on that answer when I was a rookie several years ago.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 5 years ago


    SHamrock61 is correct. I attended the Metropolitian Police Academy of Washington D.C. in 1969. During the training a professor from Georgetown University instructed a class on the History of Policing. During this class he explained that the word COP came from Constable On Patrol and this occurred during the time that Sir Robert Peale was establishing the Metropolitian London Police Force.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 5 years ago

    In Old England, where many of our traditions and sayings came from, the policeman's coat was lined vertically down the center with large copper buttons. Hence, the word "cop" is a derivative of the word, copper, from all the large copper buttons on the coat.

  • __65_or_so_max50


    about 5 years ago


    My understanding of the term 'COP' began during Sir Robert Peele's Constables of the London Metropolitan Police prior to the Boston Police Dept. So the story goes, a group were burglarizing a business and one man stood lookout for the local Constable. He apparently did not see the constable until almost too late and yelled the name COP. Apparently the bad guys had used this as a slang term between them. The officer heard the man yell it. When questioned about the word 'cop' after his capture, he explained the meaning of the shortened word for the Constable On Patrol. This second nickname also stuck. The Bobbie's men were now also 'Cops".
    Umm....kinda like 'G-man' or 'Pigs' ?

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 5 years ago


    Okay-------C O P constable on patrol from England -- also once known as Bobbies because the originator of the patrol officer was Robert Peale in England. Paddy wagon from New York because when they first started their police department most of the police were Irish. It was a rotten job, worse pay and no one with any other job (except firemen who were the same as the police) would take the job of police. So it was always Patrick driving the wagon that transported the prisoners. So it was Patty's wagon and then because Paddy was used as an insult to the Irish it became Paddy Wagon. I won a $25.00 lunch on this bet 15 years ago!

  • Thi_seal_max50


    about 5 years ago


    Well, I am ready for Jeopardy! now.

  • Dscn3208_max50


    about 5 years ago


    I heard COP stood for "Constable On Patrol"

  • Mourning_badge_max50


    about 5 years ago


    Very interesting...would like to see more.

PoliceLink School Finder

Save time in your search for a criminal justice degree program. Use PoliceLink's School Finder to locate schools online and in your area.

Get Info

* In the event that we cannot find a program from one of our partner schools that matches your specific area of interest, we may show schools with similar or unrelated programs.