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They went that-a-way, back toward Wall Street.

Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me the origin of the word “cop” or point me in the right direction? — Denny.

Right direction? Sure. Personally, I’m just glad you’re not writing to ask, as a dismaying number of people do, how to become a detective, “the real kind, like on TV.” I usually tell them that the best way is to just keep watching lots of TV. I should get an award for keeping those people on their couches. But the truly scary thing is when people send me long accounts of crimes they want me to solve. I forward those to Matlock.

I’m assuming that you’re asking about “cop” in the sense of “police officer,” rather than the 15th century word “cop” meaning “spider” (an alternate form of which, “cob,” gave us “cobweb”). Fun fact: when I was growing up, referring to a police-person as a “cop” was considered disrespectful, almost akin to swearing; the preferred term was “policeman” or, later, “police officer,” which always struck me as both ungainly and creepily deferential. Then again, I’ve yet to get used to the term “Homeland Security.” I keep imagining Dorothy in Oz saying, “There’s no place like Homeland” with the theme from The Sound of Music playing.

There are, as you might expect, a number of explanations frequently offered for “cop” as slang for a person of the police persuasion, a term which first appeared in print in the mid-19th century and can be assumed to have been in oral use long before that. Perhaps the most popular theory traces “cop” to the longer form “copper” (which appeared at roughly the same time) and suggests that “copper” and “cop” originally referred to copper buttons, supposedly a feature of early police uniforms. Alternatively, “copper” is said to come from the copper badges supposedly worn by police at that time, a theory often elaborated by positing copper badges for sergeants, brass for patrolmen, and silver for higher ranks. As you can tell from the frequency of the word “supposedly” above, neither of those theories has withstood investigation. Nor has the runner-up, the theory that “cop” was originally an acronym for “Constable on Patrol.” Acronyms were vanishingly rare before World War Two, let alone in the mid-19th century, and there’s absolutely no evidence for that one.

Fortunately, the fact that such dandy “copper” theories have come a cropper, as Sherlock Holmes might say, does not mean the trail of “cop” and “copper” has gone cold. “Cop” as slang for “police officer” almost certainly comes ultimately from the Latin verb “capere,” meaning “to snatch or seize” (which also gave us the verb “to capture”). “Cop” as a verb first appeared in the early 18th century with the meaning “to capture, lay ahold of, nab,” and is still used in this sense in such phrases as “cop a quick meal” or “cop a nap” (“The privileged driver, on dropping his fare … almost invariably ‘cops’ a job on his way back,” 1868). The verb “to cop” also was (and still is) used to mean “to steal,” and in such phrases as “to cop a plea” (take an advantageous deal in court) and “cop out” (to take an opportunity to abandon a job, one’s principles, etc.).

It’s likely that the use of “cop” by criminals to mean “to steal” led more than a few police officers in the 19th century to reject the term, perhaps regarding it as an implicit allegation of dishonesty. But the use of “cop” in the “police” sense comes from the underworld use of “cop” to mean “capture,” especially arrest by the police (“Prisoner said, ‘Yes, I am the man. I am glad you have copped me.’” 1888). A “cop” in this sense was simply someone who “cops” criminals, making “copper” a job description completely unrelated to the metal “copper.”


The tiger in my tank is very tired.

Dear Word Detective: Don’t know why, but the word “car” popped into my head the other day. I’ve lived with it all my life and always taken it for granted. But it’s an odd word, probably short for “carriage” from the original “horseless carriage” name given to the vehicle? Or perhaps from “cart” or “cartage”? Or is it related to “caravan”? How and when (and who) decided to give the vehicle the name “car’? And when did “automobile” (the name) come along? — Barney Johnson.

Good question. Speaking of cars, I grew up reading Tom Swift Jr. books, and I was recently reminded of Tom’s fabulous inventions (“Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane,” etc.) by the saga of Elon Musk’s newfangled Tesla electric car. I doubt that Victor Appleton (the “house pseudonym” of the Tom Swift writers) could ever have anticipated the high-octane ruckus that greeted a New York Times’ reporter’s test of the Tesla’s mileage. It was a story that would have necessitated a title like “Tom Swift Jr and the Electric Car that Pooped Out Halfway to Boston,” followed by “Tom Swift Jr and the Public Relations Slugfest.” Mr. Musk is now developing spaceships, which hopefully will come with really long extension cords.

“Car” is actually a very old word, first appearing in English around 1300. The root of “car” is the Latin “carrus,” meaning a two-wheeled wagon, but the Latin word itself has Celtic roots, and “car” arrived in English by a roundabout route through Old French and Anglo-Norman.  In English, “car” was first used to mean a horse-drawn cart or wagon. The origin of “cart” is, incidentally, a bit unclear. Old English had the word “craet,” meaning “cart,” but there’s some evidence that the Old Norse “kartr” might be the source. Any connection between “cart” and “car” is fairly remote.

Over the next few centuries, “car” was also used to mean the passenger compartment of a balloon, the gondola of a cableway (i.e., a “cable car”), an elevator “car,” and a railway carriage (“carriage” is from the same “carrus” source, as is our verb “to carry”). It wasn’t until 1896 that “car” was first used for what we now also call an “automobile” (“The latter drove with a daring which may have been dangerous to himself, but which never affected his car.”). This is now the usual sense of “car,” and almost every other use requires a clarifying modifier (“railway car,” etc.).

“Caravan” certainly looks and seems as though it should have some connection to “car,” given that a group of people driving together in a number of cars is commonly called a “caravan.” But the root of “caravan” is the Persian word “karwan,” which entered English in the 16th century in the form “carouan.” In English, the word was initially used in reference to the “caravans” of the Middle East, explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A company of merchants, pilgrims, or others, in the East or northern Africa, traveling together for the sake of security, especially through the desert.” Later usage applied “caravan” to a fleet of ships as well as, in the American West, what we would call a “wagon train.” By the late 17th century, “caravan” was applied to covered wagons themselves (especially the sort used by traveling carnivals and Gypsies in Europe), and eventually to the small trailers we call mobile homes. Today what we call “trailer parks” in the US are known in Britain as “caravan parks.”

Incidentally, the first generation of automobiles were indeed popularly called “horseless carriages,” but are referred to by collectors today as “brass era cars” from the brass commonly used in their trim and fixtures. “Automobiles” actually predate internal combustion cars. The term (from “auto,” self, plus “mobile,” moving) was first applied to steam-powered vehicles in the 1860s. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor, is credited with producing a small steam-powered cart in 1769 and thus arguably inventing the “automobile.” The term was used in the late 19th century for a variety of self-propelled vehicles driven by steam, compressed air, and electric motors.

Many happy returns

Play it again, Sam, until people don’t get the reference.

Dear Word Detective: My birthday is coming, and already I’m being wished “many happy returns,” and it suddenly struck me that this seemed an odd thing to wish. I’m getting to an age where I’d love to be able to “return” this aging self and exchange for a newer, more tech-savvy one! Is it somehow connected to returns one gets on an investment? Dictionary definitions for “returns” as a noun didn’t seem to pertain. Thanks for any light you can shine. — Linda.

Gee, that’s a good question. I know what you mean about wanting to return and exchange yourself for a newer version, and a few years ago I might have agreed with the sentiment. But the more TV I watch, the less I want to live forever. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too many Family Feud reruns. If you compare the contestant answers from ten years ago with those from current shows, you’re forced to conclude that the zeitgeist has taken a rather dark turn. Today, for example, in response to “Name something you grope for in the dark” (Um, light switch? Alarm clock?), a seemingly nice lady replied “Your gun.” Don’t make any sudden noises outside Grandma’s door, folks.

“Many happy returns” does seem like an odd thing to say, especially right after “Happy birthday!” I vaguely remember thinking, as a kid, that it had something to do with returning gifts, or perhaps the speaker was saying that the warm birthday greeting was “in return” for good wishes in the past from the birthday-person. In any case, this is obviously a seriously weird phrase. Or maybe not.

“Return” as both a noun and a verb was adopted into English in the 14th century from the Old French “retourn” (noun) and “retourner” (verb). The verb, which arose slightly earlier, originally meant “to turn back, to come back to a place or person” (“re,” back, plus “tourner,” to turn). Both the noun and verb have since, of course, developed dozens of extended and figurative uses, from “returns” on an investment (where your money comes back to you, hopefully having grown in its absence) to the IRS “returns” (forms submitted) in which you bid a big chunk of those investment “returns” a permanent farewell. A “return” can also be a ball hit back over the net in tennis, the act of giving or sending something back to the owner or source, and the lever or key on a typewriter (remember those?) that causes the carriage to zip back to the right to begin a new line. A “Return” key on a computer is now usually labeled “Enter,” but is still often marked with the typewriter “Return” character.

“Many happy returns” first appeared in print in the early 18th century, and it was used not just on birthdays, but on any happy occasion (New Year’s Day, Christmas, etc.). The original, and still more formal, form of the phrase was “many happy returns of the day” (“And to wish we may see many returns of this Day, many happy New-Years,” 1714), and there we have the simple explanation of the mystery. The “return” refers to the passage of a single year and the recurrence of the birthday; “many happy returns” wishes the birthday celebrant many happy birthdays (i.e., a long, happy life). Obviously, this also works just as well for annual occasions like Christmas, New Years, Arbor Day, etc.