Sometimes, a word just sticks in my craw, and sometimes, I dont see eye to eye with the Associated Press stylebook, which is the last word on words for us journalists. Except when it isnt. (Yes, newspapers can and do overrule AP and adopt local exceptions to the hallowed writ, but theyre exceptions, which means it doesnt happen often.)
Part of the problem with people like me is that I didnt 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, Ive 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 Id never considered cop to be one of them. It occurs often in spoken language and pop culture. Theres good cop, bad cop, Robocop, Beverly Hills Cop, beat cop and so forth. Usually, the term itself seems neutral. Its only rendered derogatory by the tone in which its 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 officers 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 didnt see anything offensive about this, and since most people probably have no idea about the words origins anyway, it didnt 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 doesnt have a problem with the word.
My dads never minded being called a cop.
I dont 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? Ill share the results in my next column, when Ill also reveal some other words readers found irritating based on my previous column.
Steve Provost is a Tribune copy editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .