Bobbies, cops...

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xmanfe1999 | 20:36 Sat 07th May 2005 | Phrases & Sayings
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I heard a few years ago that police constables in London were no longer called "bobbies". Is it true and if so, when did this name disappear? I'm a fervent reader of Ian Rankin novels and I've read he sometimes calls policemen "coppers". I thought this name was rather American. Quizmonster? Corbyloon? Peter Pedant? IndieSinger?... Please?


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Slang terms, like most trends, go in and out of style and may be dependent on many factors such as geography and culture. I have never lived in London but I would be surprised if 'bobbie' was used with any prevalence anywhere in the UK within the last twenty years.

As for 'copper', this has been an English term for centuries, probably a corruption of the Old French caper, to capture. I thought Americans were more likely to use 'cop'.

Hi xmanfe - slang terms go in and use as they do in France. Whoever uses 'Fuzz' nowadays - for the Police I mean.

Coppers - definitely English.

I'd agree with what's been said and add it was Sir Robert Peel who established the Police Force in London in 1829 and the constables were known as "peelers" after him. It's from Sir Robert we get the word "bobby" but there's many other terms "the filth" "rozzers" "bizzies" "polis" etc. 
There seem to be two credible possibilities. Either a corruption of the 16th Century English word 'cap'/Middle French 'caper' (as kempie suggests/Latin 'capere' - all meaning to seize or capture; or, as a possible American origin, a reference to the metallic copper badges worn by New York policemen many years ago.

I'm not sure if I'm invited to answer this - but I'll offer my 2p worth anyway.  It's still recognised as slang on this website.  I also suspect that the use of the word has not totally disappeared from the whole of London.  There are lots of different people in London - I bet some still use the phrase.  I don't tihnk it would be possible to prove that they are "no longer called Bobbies" - sounds like a bit of a null hypothesis to me.

And where did calling them pigs come from?

As for copper, it seems logical to me that as a robber robs, then a copper cops him for doing it. Don't know if 'cops' is a northern term or whether it's a national one, but I grew up in Yorkshire and when people got 'caught' doing something, they often said they'd been copped for doing it. I never hear the expression where I live now, a long way away from there.
With reference to kempie's post the word 'bobby' only seems to be used in the alliterative 'bobbies on the beat.'
I live in the London area and we usually call them the old bill or just the bill
Police officers certainly call themselves "bobbies" in my local force in Yorkshire.   Dunno about elsewhere.

Police officers on the street will invariably describe themselves as (beat) bobbies, but the term otherwise seems restricted to the written word these days.

The last time I heard it used was over ten years ago when a colleague was over at a football match in Holland. Talking to the local police, he mentioned that he was a Special Constable in England.

"So you are a Hobby Bobby, then..." was the reply which was overheard and stuck with him ever since.

Must be a disappointment to the Americans who come over to see them on bicycles, two by two.

Cop is a very old English word that means to capture or catch. It was soon to become associated with the police, and the copper was born.  It's a fair cop.

The American cop may seem at first glance to simply be a shortened version of our copper, but some believe that cop was largely inspired by the fact that the New York police used to flash copper badges at those they apprehended.

Pig was first used as a derogatory term for the police way back in 1811. There is no logical origin story behind the word - it seems simply to have stemmed from the disgusted resentment that some felt towards the long arm of the law. The use of pig went out of fashion until the 1960s, when American students used it as a taunt during their anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.

The Old Bill - The police force as we know it today came into being when the politician Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Bill in 1829. This legislation set up a formal, uniformed police force who started their first organised patrols on the 29th September, 1829. Their nickname stems from The Bill that created them.

As well as the above, The Peelers and Bobbies, you also had the Bow Street Runners, Flatfoots, The Rozza's/The Roz, The Fuzz, The Sweeney and The Nick (as in you're nicked me ol' china).

as to when the term 'bobby' or 'bobbies on the beat' phased out, as mentioned above the term still remains in some parts of the country and media.

Question Author

Hi everybody, and "everybody" really means it, even the ones who were not invited by name (please acw, don't bear me a grudge). I haven't had the pleasure to "meet" all of you yet and really regret we can't meet in person. We would form quite a funny club, wouln't we? Thank you all for your answers and links ( particularly, very useful -though not while I'm on duty - and very funny too.

If some of you speak French here are some p-words that you might use on a visit to our lovely country, but if  you are "copped" telling them, I will deny everything...So, in France, we love our police(!) and we give them lots of names : the most popular is "les flics" from the German "Fliege" a fly; this name has become so common that is isn't even really derogatory anymore and that the 1st "flic" in the country is the Minister of the Interior. It has known a slight revival for a dozen years, when a new form of slang appeared in the suburbs, that is called "verlan", which is "� l'envers", read back to front : "les flics" became "les keufs", ("les femmes" became "les meufs", "une f�te" "une teuf" and so on...). Let's go back to the police : they're also called "les poulets" (the chickens), la poulaille( poultry), la maison poulaga = the henhouse (as a group)...Some words are less used today but are still in favour with "argot" (slang) lovers : les perdreaux -essentially for uniformed gendarmes (the -young- partridges), les argousins (this one's very old) and many others. Being a good citizen, respectful of the law, my knowledge on the matter is quite limited and I swear I'll spend some time looking for a link to a French slang website if some of you are interested. Bye now, I  have to go and fetch my son at school. Read from you soon, it's been a pleasure.

Octavius - re Old Bill. What's your source for this. I always thought that it was a post WW1 expression referring to a cartoon character of that name who was a soldier in the trenches. As a lot of ex-soldiers became policemen after the war they were 'Old Bill'

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