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So, I was with a friend getting Starbucks. While talking to him I used the term "cops" πŸ’¬. A customer waiting for their coffee said

"We don't say 'cops' honey, it's disrespectful." Looked at my university hoodie and said "Oh, look you go to [ ... ], a young educated man like you should refrain from such profanity ..."

Either I have been oblivious to the word's impropriety, or I got Karen-ed.

Is "cops" a derogatory term or slang? Does it have a negative connotation? If so, why and since when?

There is some evidence that suggests some actually do find it derogatory.

Vocabulary.com says "Cop is an informal, somewhat derogatory word for a police officer." "... uncomplimentary terms for a policeman."

Collins dictionary says "cop" is slang (both in BrE and AmE). Merriam-Webster, Lexico, Macmillan, and Cambridge does not consider it slang but just informal.

There is a thread on Quora about this: Is cop a derogatory term?


If the term is disrespectful, why do reputable news journals use it? Use of the term "cop/s" in authoritative sources:

  1. When Cops Aren’t on the Beat - Wall Street Journal
  2. Some good news, finally, for cops: you can go back to eating ... - The Guardian
  3. CPD seeks to fire 3 cops for uses of force ... - Chicago Tribune
  4. Toronto cops recover two stolen vehicles ... - Toronto Sun
  5. These Senators Want To Force Tech Firms To Give The Cops Keys To Our Encrypted Data. - Forbes

πŸ’¬ Our conversation was on "burglary" and had nothing to do with the current events.


I would like to clarify a few things. Most of us are able to distinguish between a rude person and someone who is just dirty. By definition (Wiki), a Karen is the latter.

Calling a stranger "honey" to correct their usage of a word (or to impose their own preferred word) is not respectful. Making snide remarks and doing a patronizing "shoulder-rub" is not respectful. This person's attitude was downright condescending.

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    That is absolutely blowing smoke. I have heard U.S. 911 dispatchers use the word many times. Cops themselves use this term. – Eddie Kal Jun 25 at 5:47
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    Just to add a little more context, there was even a long-running show called Cops. – Em. Jun 25 at 6:32
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    Back in the '70's I would have considered the term impolite. After 1990, I wouldn't feel that way. In my estimation, it underwent a significant shift in that time (perhaps due to the TV show) in at least some regions of the US. I would imagine some older people might still retain that association. – BowlOfRed Jun 25 at 22:24
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    Our (NZ) police use it themselves: newcops.co.nz – Rich Jun 26 at 1:34
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    When I was a kid, in the 60's, "Cop" was definitely derogatory. Not as bad as "Pig" but still up there. That has changed over time and hardly anyone these days considers it to be anything worse that informal slang. – RBarryYoung Jun 26 at 14:14
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I am going to write this answer from a sociolinguistic perspective, because there is a lot at stake that can't be explained with a yes/no answer. Nonetheless we shall still make an attempt at giving a simple answer to your title question.

Yes "cop" is considered slang. No, it is not derogatory.

For a term to be considered derogatory, it has to indicate criticism or show disrespect. And under normal circumstances one would not use a derogatory term toward oneself because of its associated/inherent disrespect/criticism. But occurrences abound of cops themselves using the term "cop":

Florida cop yelling: "I'm a cop!"

Obama administration Department of Justice official in a conference with police chiefs from all over the U.S.: "If you throw a cop into a neighborhood and tell them to engage in enforcement activity..."

On top of the linked examples in your question that evince the prevalence of "cop" in journalistic writing, it is also widely heard in public talks, news broadcasts, and even police news releases. These are some examples I found on YouTube. Some of these took place in settings as formal as it gets.

A psychiatrist recounting what her police client told her: "I'm a cop. This is my job."

TED talk speaker telling a story.

David Cameron telling a story in a press conference with Barack Obama.

To sum, "cop" is not a slur, nor is it considered pejorative by most anglophones in this day and age. It could have been a pejorative term back in the day β€” way back, as per personal attestations of @BowlOfRed and @RBarryYoung previous to the 60's and 70's, β€” but not today. "Pig" and "pork" are pejorative terms for the police, and "the fuzz" and many others used to be too, not "cop".

Etymology

etymonline.com says:

"policeman," 1859, abbreviation (said to be originally thieves' slang) of earlier copper (n.2), which is attested from 1846, agent noun from cop (v.) "to capture or arrest as a prisoner." Cop-shop "police station" is attested from 1941. The children's game of cops and robbers is attested from 1900.

Wikipedia says

The term copper was the original, unshortened word, originally used in Britain to mean "someone who captures". In British English, the term cop is recorded (Shorter Oxford Dictionary) in the sense of 'to capture' from 1704, derived from the Latin capere via the Old French caper. The OED suggests that "copper" is from "cop" in this sense, but adds that the derivation is uncertain. Many imaginative but incorrect stories have come up over the years, including that cop refers to the police uniform's copper buttons, the police man's copper badge, or that it is an abbreviation for "constable on patrol", "constabulary of police", or "chief of police".

So "Addressing police as cops is disrespectful" is a myth? Why do some people keep saying that?

Insisting that cop is a pejorative term and perpetuating that myth help reinforce the public image of police being heroic and separate from the great unwashed. Despite what we are taught to believe: "No one is above the law", as a matter of fact the police are above the law and they are different from us legally speaking. Police effectively enjoy criminally extensive immunity that has allowed them to continue murdering people of color on the street without real consequences. I could point to numerous studies (most but definitely not all of them by African American thinkers) on this topic, but since it's way past midnight for me, I will just quote the New York Times to save time:

Police officers enjoy a web of protections against the consequences of their behavior on the job. From the legal doctrine of qualified immunity to state and local police indemnification laws, it is nearly impossible for a plaintiff to get any justice, even when an officer unquestionably violated his or her rights. (source)

Note: NYT is very generous with its wording. Black scholars have said a lot more damning things about this.

The social message sent out to people via popular culture and news is that police are different from other people, socially, legally, and linguistically. Here is an interview where the creator of popular cop shows such as the Wire talks about how popular culture has helped put police on a pedestal. So to perpetuate this separation of police from the masses, the best sociolinguistic tool is to tell people to treat police with respect and call them "officers". It is interesting to note how the word "officer" comes from an earlier use in British and American military to distinguish commissioned military officials from enlisted men. The word "officer" itself has elitist undertones.

As for that Quora answer purportedly from a former dispatcher that claims police dispatchers never use "cop", I can tell you from experience that is not true. I have heard U.S. 911 dispatchers use "cop" several times. Different police departments carry out their training differently, so I wouldn't be surprised if in some agencies/districts dispatchers are trained to avoid this word, but it does not represent all American 911 dispatchers.

What is chillingly telling about that answer is how it shows you the us versus them mentality common among people in law enforcement. "Them" is the great unwashed, the masses, the ordinary folks, the policed. So to quote from the Quora answer you linked in your question (emphasis my own):

My instructor looked at me, "We don't use the word 'cop' to describe an officer of the law. We say police officer. They can use that word out there. We don't."

I got a lesson that day in dispatcher etiquette, my first taste of the us versus them mentality, and the feeling that perhaps "cop" wasn't the preferred term to describe an officer of the law.

Addressing police as "police officers" and insisting that "cop" is a bad word to be avoided is a very simple sociolinguistic tool to keep that social and linguistic distance.

Why did that person say such a thing to you? Did you get Karened?

I wasn't there to have witnessed it, so I can't be certain. But it sounds to me you had a racist and/or xenophobic encounter. Since we have chatted about similar things in the ELL chatroom, I understand the larger background, which is missing in your question. That person must have said those words on their own preconceived and stereotype-based notions about you. My guess is they made assumptions about you being a foreign student at a local university and took it upon themself to lecture you on proper English used in polite society, by asserting her sociolinguistic position as socially polite, linguistically correct, and thus culturally superior.

That is a textbook act of microaggression.

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    I'm surprised that nobody expressed the opinion that the only sane and sensible reaction to this woman's speech is "Mind your own business, and don't butt into the conversations of total strangers who aren't talking to you." – Prime Mover Jun 25 at 9:26
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    "Officer" is neither strictly, nor originally, Military - for example, you have still have "Officers of Arms" (Arms here being a Coat of Arms, or Heraldry, not weaponry) and the UK Great Officers of State - it is (or, at least was) comparable to an "Official" or a "Constable" (in its 11th-century meaning as a specific member of a Noble Court, alongside Stewards and Chamberlains) – Chronocidal Jun 25 at 14:45
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    "We don't do that honey" is most assuredly a textbook microaggression. – Yorik Jun 25 at 17:07
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Eddie Kal Jun 26 at 8:16
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Q1: Is "cops" a derogatory term or slang? Does it have a negative connotation?

A1. Yes, cops is definitely a slang term. It was also widely considered a derogatory term in the recent past. Whether it is still considered a derogatory term may depend on factors like region or age.

@BowlOfRed is correct that the term was widely considered disrespectful merely a few decades ago, in the 1970s, and I would clarify, in the 1980s.

Back in the '70's I would have considered the term impolite. After 1990, I wouldn't feel that way. In my estimation, it underwent a significant shift in that time (perhaps due to the TV show) in at least some regions of the US. I would imagine some older people might still retain that association. – BowlOfRed

Q2: If the term is disrespectful, why do reputable news journals use it?

A2. Newspapers are generally not exemplars of etiquette. Newspaper headlines prioritize brevity over respectful means of address.

Q3: (OP did not ask this) Is it profanity?

A3. No, it's not profanity (blasphemous or obscene language). Perhaps the speaker meant to say "slang" or "unprofessional".

Q4: (Implicit Question) Was I Karen-ed?

A4: I observe that the speaker referred to you as an educated man, which is a respectful way to address you. Since you are posting on ELL, it is possible something about your language suggested to her that you are an English language learner.

I think the best answer for your mental health -- and future interactions with others -- is to assume that she took the time from her day in an attempt to help you speak more professionally. I think she'd be mortified to know that strangers on the internet are melting down her attempt to be helpful into totems of race and oppression.

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