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shameless pleading






Book that book, Danno.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been reading about the meaning of the word “policeman” in a book, which says that it originated in “polis” meaning “city,” and therefore “policeman” means “man of the city.” Do you have any idea where the word “politician” comes from? I assume it also derives from “polis,” but the ending isn’t the same and I assume this means it has a different meaning. — Michelle.

Wow. That book really says that “policeman” means “man of the city”? That’s pretty seriously not true. It’s also an instance of what I’d call the Lego School of Linguistic Analysis, the belief that each part of a word has a particular meaning, usually firmly fixed, and that by snapping the bits apart the intrepid explorer can figure out what the word “truly means.”

Let’s just say that language doesn’t work that way, to put it mildly. While words often are built from roots with particular meanings to which prefixes, suffixes and other bits are added, the process usually takes centuries, the meaning almost always shifts along the way, and the results often have only a tangential connection to the original “meanings” of the constituent parts (and in the case of prefixes and suffixes, those “meanings” are notoriously vague in the first place). The “take it apart” approach also often leads to what is known as the “etymological fallacy,” the belief that if you can determine the “original meaning” of a word, you have found its “true” meaning. Thus, for example, many otherwise sane people object to the use of “decimate” to mean “severely reduce, damage or destroy” because the original word meant “kill one of every ten soldiers” (the method the Roman army used to punish mutineers). I’m not sure why people resist language change so fiercely, but, fortunately, language isn’t listening, and “decimate” in its modern sense is a very useful word.

Several years ago I received a question that also dealt with the word “politician,” in that case asking about the story that “politics” came from “poli,”supposedly meaning “many” (it doesn’t) plus “tics,” supposedly meaning “ticks,” i.e., “bloodsucking insects” (wrong again). As a joke that’s not bad, but as etymology, fuhgeddaboudit. The actual root of “politics” is indeed the Greek “polis,” meaning “city.” This produced the Greek “polites,” meaning “citizen,” which in turn produced “politikos,” meaning “regarding citizens or matters of state.” In Latin, the Greek “politikos” became “polticus,” which eventually gave us “politics,” “political,” and, with the suffix “ian” indicating action or agency, “politician” for a person whose jobs involves affairs of government or civil administration. So “politics” is simply the system of governing a society, and a “politician” is someone who works in that apparatus.

Our English word “police” was imported from the Middle French branch of the “polis” family tree, where “police” meant essentially the same thing as our modern English word “policy” in the sense of “the conduct of good government.” By the 16th century, our English “police” had come to mean “the organizing or governing body of a community,” but it wasn’t until the 18th century that “police” came to mean a specific department or agency devoted to maintaining public safety and law and order. The use of “police” as a verb meaning “to keep a place, especially a military base, clean and orderly” arose in the 19th century and harks back to the now-obsolete use of “police” to mean simply “maintain good governance.”

Speaking of things that have become obsolete, the terms “policeman” and “policewoman”  have been almost universally abandoned in favor of “police officer,” but all three forms denote a person who is an official agent of a law enforcement (“police”) agency. Interestingly, the word “constable,” formerly applied to police officers in Britain and elsewhere, comes ultimately from the Latin “comes stabuli,” meaning literally “Count of the stable,” i.e., head groom in a stable. The term later was applied to the chief household officer in royal palaces, then to military commanders, and finally, in the 15th century, to law enforcement authorities.

6 comments to Politician/Police

  • Simon

    The book in question may be from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I know I read that derivation in one of them. A good bit of the humor in them comes from fanciful etymologies turned pun.

  • taz

    man at arms was the pratchett book and he clears it up at end when patrician asks Carrot if he knows where the word politician comes from.

  • Lardiel

    I’m sorry but this article is not exactly correct. For a latin language speaker (as i am) it is easyer to find the etymology of a word derrived from greek ar latin. And the “English word “police” was imported from the Middle French branch of the “polis” family tree, where “police” meant essentially the same thing as our modern English word “policy””,but that french “police” is still derrived from the greek “polis”. So both policeman and politician are from: “Greek “polites,” meaning “citizen””.

  • Patricia L. Perez

    I would like to be able to share the policeman, police and Policy one ~ on FaceBook but do not see a way to share it. Thank You

  • toppo

    The old greek word for polis means city. I’ts that simple

  • Bridget

    I’m another Terry Pratchett fan that stumbled on to this site after reading Men at Arms.

    The Watch’s current motto is “Fabricati diem, pvnc”. This is nonsense in Latin, and doesn’t actually mean “Make my day, punk”, although it looks as though it ought to; this is the nature of most “Latatian” in the books, and is not unusual. However, Fred Colon insists it means “To protect and serve”.

    List of Phrases, some seem legitimate to me but maybe they are Dog Latin.

    The Word Detective site seems very useful. I don’t want to clutter the page with links. I do imagine hordes of readers researching the origin of politician after reading Men at Arms. Hopefully those readers will be able to end their search quickly and return to their Round World duties with haste … or maybe hasten back to the vibrant Discworld.

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