Defining Moments

‘Cop’ is not a bad word — it’s just written that way

February 24, 2013 

Sometimes, a word just sticks in my craw, and sometimes, I don’t see eye to eye with the Associated Press stylebook, which is the last word on words for us journalists. Except when it isn’t. (Yes, newspapers can and do overrule AP and adopt local exceptions to the hallowed writ, but they’re exceptions, which means it doesn’t happen often.)

Part of the problem with people like me is that I didn’t learn the language by memorizing a stylebook. I learned it by reading and listening to how people talked. At a young age, I started deconstructing sentences, looking for root words and studying how the language worked. When it came time to study English in school, I was thoroughly unimpressed with such ideas as diagramming sentences and identifying parts of speech. I wanted to know how to communicate effectively in the real world, not in some laboratory.

This brings me to the word that stuck in my craw most recently: “cop.” In the real world, I’ve always heard it used as a synonym for “police officer.” The Associated Press, however, says it should be avoided, contending that it “often is a derogatory term out of place in serious police stories.”

Now, there are a few derogatory words for police officer, but I’d never considered “cop” to be one of them. It occurs often in spoken language and pop culture. There’s “good cop, bad cop,” “Robocop,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “beat cop” and so forth. Usually, the term itself seems neutral. It’s only rendered derogatory by the tone in which it’s used or the adjective that precedes it. Obviously, calling someone a dirty cop or a rogue cop is an insult, but referring to someone as a good cop or dedicated cop can be a compliment.

Of course, I can be wrong about these things, so I decided to look up the origin of the word to find out whether it was somehow offensive. I found a couple of myths — that it was short for “constable on patrol” or that it was based on the copper buttons on an officer’s uniform. Neither turned out to be correct.

According to http://Snopes .com, it probably came from a slang term for the verb “to take.” Police arrested people, or took them in, hence they became known as cops.

I didn’t see anything offensive about this, and since most people probably have no idea about the word’s origins anyway, it didn’t seem that this could be the cause of much consternation.

I then decided to pose a question via social media: “Do you consider the word ‘cop’ derogatory or just a short synonym for ‘police officer’?” The results: 17 people said it was the latter, and only two were offended by it. This is, of course, hardly a representative sample of people in the United States, but I did get a few notable responses that are worth sharing:

“My husband is a retired cop … he doesn’t have a problem with the word.”

“My dad’s never minded being called a cop.”

“I don’t think most police officers see it as derogatory, according to my hubby who is an ex-police officer.”

The next night, my wife and I went out for a teppanyaki dinner, which is served family style, with eight people seated around a grill. As luck would have it, we wound up sitting next to a couple of former police officers, neither of whom had any problem being referred to as ex-cops.

What do you think? Do you consider “cop” to be an acceptable or derogatory term for police officer? I’ll share the results in my next column, when I’ll also reveal some other words readers found irritating based on my previous column.

Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor. Reach him at sprovost@thetribunenews.com .

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