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No-one knows for sure. Some think that the term came from the copper buttons on the uniforms of the first police force in London, or from the copper badges carried by New York's first police sergeants (patrolmen are said to have had brass badges and senior officers silver). Others believe that COP is an acronym for Constable On Patrol. But most word experts poo-pooh those suggestions.

The Phurba Etymologicon [*1] an authority on "non-standard English and uncommon words," says cop can mean (a) steal, obtain, (b) police officer, or (c) to have sex with (as a contraction of copulate), and adds: "There is a high probability that the word copper is simply a noun form of cop, derived from the meaning capture as in the Latin capere. By this etymology, we derive cop as one who captures." In other words, a cop or copper is one who catches a criminal.

By a weird coincidence, you can even buy a phurba made of copper. Phurbas are meditation tools resembling daggers, which originated from Tibetan tent stakes. You can see a picture of a copper phurba on the Internet [*2].

The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories says: "Around the year 1700, the slang verb cop entered English usage, meaning 'to get ahold of, catch, capture.' By 1844, cop showed up in print, and soon thereafter the -er suffix was added, and a policeman became a copper, one who cops or catches and arrests criminals. Copper first appeared in print in 1846, the use of cop as a short form copper occured in 1859."

How police became known as coppers has even copped attention from New York comic artist Josh Neufeld and his wife, author Sari Wilson. [*4] "My wife and I collaborated on that strip," Josh told us by e-mail. "She did the interviews with our friends and I drew the comic. (That's us in the last panel)."


New York's early coppers weren't the only Americans to wear copper badges. According to the Atlanta History Center's website [*3]:  "In the early 1800s, Charleston and other Southern cities required every slave artisan to wear one of these copper badges as a means of distinguishing between free and enslaved workers. A slave-holding master frequently hired out his slave laborers to merchants, artisans, or businesses in the city. The master received the wages. By 1860, approximately four million African-Americans were held as slaves in 15 of the United States's 33 states."

In Australia in the 1820s the early colonists presented breast "king plates", usually made of brass or bronze (both containing copper) to Aboriginal people considered leaders in their groups [*5]. Similar plates were also presented to Aboriginal people who had performed courageous deeds, and to faithful servants.

The story of copper, the mineral, is shown in a brilliant animation which won a recent award as Chile's best website. It's artistic, entertaining, and (if you understand Spanish) informative.  Well worth a visit. Just click on COPPER.


* Sources
  1. Phurba Etymologicon
  2. Copper Phurba
  3. Atlanta History Center
  4. Comic
  5. Australian King Plates


Copyright 2002
Eric Shackle
Story first posted July 2002

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