Friday, May 16, 2008

Fuzz, flic, flatfoot: What do you call the cops?

One of the joys of reading crime fiction from countries other than my own is the linguistic vistas that open up. Shocking though this may be, I was well into adulthood before I learned what a plod was. And I have only recently learned that the term comes from Mr. Plod, a character in Enid Blyton's Noddy stories. Bill and poulet (in its slang sense) are two relatively recent additions to my vocabulary, and I am sorry I don't get to use them more often.

A detailed discussion on the French/Corsican Ile Noire blog is a gold mine of French terms for police, starting with the familiar flic. Read the article, and you'll add bourre, cogne, argousin, roussin, poulet, condé, keuf, babylone and schmit to your vocabulary.

Ile Noire's favorite, and mine, is baffi, a term little known except among old marseillais gangters that means mustache and derives from yellowed cartoon images that invariably depicted police officers with that particular facial ornament between nose and upper lip.

And now, readers, what are your favorite slang terms for rozzers, Johnny Law, the Man, bulls ... (To get you started, or for your own edification, here is a Wikipedia list of slang terms for police, the authenticity of some of which I can vouch for. You may also like this article in English about French verlan slang, and this list of legal and police terms, slang and otherwise, in English and French. )

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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27 Comments:

Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Here in NI we call 'em peelers - derived from Robert Peel, who founded the British police service and is also the source of the term "bobby" more commonly used in England.

Adrian McKinty uses the word peelers quite a bit in his work which is popular in America.

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

What a very polite and historically knowledgeable crowd they are in NI with their peelers.
Souf of the river, there is only one river Father Thames, the old Bill were known in my youf as the 'filth'.

What amuses me now and shows how they feel isolated from the rest of the population is the way my police friends refer to themselves as being 'in the job'.

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

I don't know if one might still on occasion come across this -- I rather doubt it -- but one slightly derisive yet not necessarily unfriendly Englishism for a uniformed officer was P.C.49, used as in "You might try asking P.C.49 over there." This came from a BBC children's radio series of the late forties and early fifties called The Adventures of P.C.49., a character who also appeared in a couple of movies and a comic strip, which gave him even greater currency. He was a sort of uniformed Roderick Alleyn who sported the name Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby, sounded like it, and was much given to organizing beanfeasts for the local ragamuffins. It did a great deal to impress upon young minds a certain image of the British policeman, and that may not have been accidental. I think that image first started to come undone in a big way when, just twenty years after Archibald left the radio waves, most of the Metropolitan Police Vice Squad were banged up for corruption, the 'filth' was heard more often than the 'plod', and the merry larks of the 'Sweeney' were, a little thereafter, enacted on television, to the great and continuing delight of their real-life counterparts.

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I posted a comment, went to sleep, then returned to find that a sociology seminar and history lesson had broken out. Thanks!

I dimly recall having heard about the origin of "bobby" once, but I had not heard the term "peeler." Both terms crackle with excitement, meaning and history to me, possibly because I don't use them every day.

Uriah, when did "the filth" originate as a term for police? It will inevitably remind North American readers of "pigs," from the 1960s and '70s. And "in the job" has the melancholic, rueful ring of "in the life."

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I think "the filth" dates from about the 1960s when the Dixon of Dock Green image of the good copper was tarnished, as Philip said by corruption charges.
I don't think I can phone my police contacts and ask when were you first called the filth.;O)

Melancholy is definitely the mood for the phrase 'in the job'.

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I like the whimsicality of "P.C. 49." I think of expressions and figures of speech as having venerable origins, and I am always surprised when terms that sound as if they've been around forever turn out to be of relatively recent birth. Such was also the case with "plod," which sounds like Dickens or at least like Wodehouse.

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So "pigs" and "filth" arose around the same time and for similar reasons. Must have been something about the zeitgeist.

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

In one of Dell Shannon's Luis Mendoza police procedurals she has either Higgins or Hackett musing about the entrepreneurial instincts of some fellow cops who created T-shirts (before CaféPress!) with a pig in uniform on the front. The image was captioned "Pride, Integrity, Guts."

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's either a clever piece of entrepreneurial T-shirt making or a nice bit of authorial invention.

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Dana King said...

Americans' familiarity with police history is more recent and leans more heavily on popular culture than historical fact. Police here are often announced by shouting "Five-Oh."

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Five-O" was on lists of slang terms that I came across when preparing this post. But I was surprised that such British terms as "plod" and "P.C. 49" also came from popular culture.

As for American terms that spring from history, the closest I can think of is "paddy wagon," from the preponderance of Irish officers on earlier American police forces.

May 16, 2008  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

In my first book I called the cops 'the Blue', and someone pulled me up on it in a review ... "Who calls the police 'the Blue'?" Three days later a character in the world's longest-running soap opera called a cop a 'Blue' ... I thought I was doing something original. Koff. Anyhoo, I've just finished John Boyne's MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, set in the 18th century, and his narrator calls the police 'the blues'.

Oh, and Peter? You do actually sleep, then? Cheers, Dec

May 17, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, dialogue is supposed to be slightly heightened, edited, trimmed, condensed and exaggerated, perhaps especially in a novel with comic touches, isn't it? It would be interesting to read that review in full and to learn why "the Blue" so disturbed the reviewer. Your characters have a greater sense of their history and linguistic heritage than that reviewer did.

Though a six-hour time difference and my nocturnal schedule may create the illusion of omnipresence, I do sleep. But Blogger's new schedule-your-post-in-advance feature may further heighten the eerie impression that I never leave the keyboard.

May 17, 2008  
Blogger Alexander said...

From the Philippines, I can only think of two right now.

pulis which is obviously taken from police; and

buwaya which literally means crocodile, often referring to greedy people such as (i) a police officer who openly asks for a bribe; (ii) a member of your basketball team who refuses to pass the ball to anyone else; (iii) a politician.

May 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like both terms. Buwaya is especially evocative because of its associated meanings. I shall try to remember it and incorporate it in my vocabulary.

Incidentally, I posted about an interesting discussion of crime fiction in the Philippines some time back. You can find that discussion here.

May 21, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

Fun, fun, fun. I love words (see my earlier post ”Play with Your Words”. The best French cop moniker has to be poulet. Hah! Chicken!

June 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like schmit. And buwaya and poulet. I like almost all of them!

June 06, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Members of the NYPD refer to "it" as "The Job" and themselves as being "on the job." Something TV actually got right.

April 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like "The Job." I'd like to eavesdrop on cops using the term to get a sense of how they use it. Thanks.

April 30, 2009  
Blogger MF said...

In my Scottish youth, it was "the Polis" (POLE-iss, long emphasis on the "Pole" part), or occasionally "bobbies" or "coppers".

If we had to speak directly to a uniformed police officer, we addressed him as "P.C." plus his last name. I've no idea what the correct method of address is nowadays.

We did hear of the term "the filth", but figured it was a London expression, since all BBC TV shows (like "Dixon of Dock Green") originated in London. This was in the days before "pigs".

I'd love to know what countries the previous comment posters were talking about. It wasn't always clear.

November 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I'd seen "polis" in Scottish crime novels and liked the term. I assume it's just "police" with the accent shifted to the dirst sullable, and I've always wondered how and why that pronunciation originated.

The first three commenters come from Northern Ireland, England and an expatriate Englishman now living in Canada. Declan is from Ireland, and the rest identify their countries in their comments, I think: one from the Philippines, and a couple from the U.S.

November 22, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I knew you'd have had at least one post on this topic...

This past weekend in San Diego I encountered a Mexican slang word for cop, tecolote. Mexican, not Spanish, for "owl". I like its click-clack Aztec/Nahuatl sound. And unlike some animal names applied to cops, this one seems rather complimentary!

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tecolote. I see a new title bubbling up. I like it.

What did you use as your search terms to find this post?

December 03, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I crossed my fingers and typed "slang". Unlike some searches I try at DBB, this one returned A) the most relevant post first, B) the search word did not appear as one of your tags, and C) the results included this "old" 2008 post. Sometimes in the past I have had to perform the same search year by year.

Perhaps Blogger's search features are becoming more sophisticated? The results also appear ranked. They are not in chronological order.

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting, I have not been consistent over the years in how I label posts, but that would not explain a change in how the search function operated. I have also noticed searcg results are not ranked chronologically, but I have not bothered to try to figure out how they are ranked.

December 03, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Ranking by number of times my search word appeared in the body of the post...?

December 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll try to see if I can guess the next time I do a search. I'll generally search for a post I know contains a given word, title, or name, so I can see how often that word occurs in each result.

December 03, 2012  

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