Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

7 June, 2012

Words, Words, Words: Cop-Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Now, hopefully, this post won’t actually be a cop-out, because that seems excessively self-referential. After my last post on etymology, I’ve started paying a bit more attention to words and phrases in the hopes of mining them for content, and I’ve started to wonder about cop-out. What is being said here? Are cops widely known for phoning it in? And, slightly related, why is cop slang for police in the first place?

To the Internet!

I’m going to start with cop, clinging to the no doubt erroneous belief that the two terms are so closely related. The Online Etymology Dictionary is, as usual, my friend. The noun cop, in the meaning policeman, is attested in 1859, as an abbreviated form of the earlier copper, which is found from 1846. Copper ultimately comes from the verb cop (which incidentally means that the word went from cop to copper and back to cop again – language is fun!). The verb cop hails from the 18th century, where it began life in a dialect in northern England – which is, of course, the best kind of England – meaning “to seize, to catch”. The OE (which, for obvious reasons, foregoes the D) gives two possible further origins – it is either Romance, through French caper from Latin capere, “to take”; or Germanic, from Old Frisian capia, “to buy”, via the Dutch kapen.

Wiktionary also gives these two possible origins, but skips the northern dialect bit. Any explanation that includes northern England is obviously superior to any explanation that doesn’t, so I think I’ll trust the OE.

And now we get to cop-out, which also originates in the verb cop. Cop-out is American slang, attested from 1942. OE thinks that it comes from a variation of cop a plea, which again springs from the northern English verb cop.

So, it goes “catch” -> “take the lesser charge” -> “sneak off, escape” -> “inadequate performance or the poor excuse for it”. Cop goes “catch” -> “person who catches criminals”, which when put like that, doesn’t really seem like much. Still, though, now I know that the fact that I associate policemen with shoddy work is purely due to a linguistic coincidence.

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