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Alaskan Range: Cop A Plea

Greg Hill, chief librarian in Fairbanks, Alaska, ruminates on the etymology of the expression "cop a plea''.

The library’s Guys Read program was boosted when Judith Kleinfeld, the UAF professor who heads the Northern Studies Program, founded the Boys Project, and writes insightful weekly newspaper columns, agreed to help prove how much Guys Read convinces 4th grade boys to consider themselves readers. Guys Read has every appearance of success: the boys love it, and parents, teachers, principals, and librarians all believe it excites the youngsters to read more.

Proving it in rigorous academic terms will help sway potential funders to help extend it to 3rd grade, when many boys stop believing that reading is fun. Dr. Kleinfeld’s expertise brings great credibility to the study, and I’m grateful for that and her deep personal interest in the program’s objectives. I also appreciate her passing along a word history question that her husband, Judge Andrew Kleinfeld of the US 9th Court of Appeals, was curious about.

Phrases like, “Cop a plea,” naturally interest judicially-minded people. Judge Kleinfeld’s research showed that “cop,” the nickname for a police officer, stems from “capere,” Latin for “capture or seize.” “This makes sense for ‘cop’,” the judge wrote, “since he catches and seizes criminal suspects … It makes no sense to me for ‘copping a plea’. A defendant does not seize a plea. He reluctantly changes his plea from not guilty to guilty because the sentencing risks of a guilty plea are worth avoiding.

“I suspect,” he continued, “that the etymology derives from bureaucratic abbreviations. When I became a district judge, my calendar clerk handed me a daily sheet of paper with whatever I was to do that day. Some entries would say ‘US v. John Doe A-135 COP.’ That meant that John Doe in case number A315 was going to enter a change of plea … My guess is that court calendar abbreviations are the origin of the term ‘cop a plea’.”

I think the judge nailed it. The earliest print references to the phrase in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang agree: “He’s coming up … Goin’ to take a plea,” from “My Life in Sing Sing (1904), and “To plead guilty to a lesser crime … in order to escape a heavier sentence,” from “Racket 222” (1929).

Euphemisms for police officers abound, ranging from “New York’s Finest” and “The Thin Blue Line” to more opprobrious ones. It’s long been rumored that “cop” is either an abbreviation of “Constable On Patrol” or a reference to the copper badges law enforcement representatives used to wear. Snopes.com, that excellent debunker of urban myth, says both these theories are wrong, and that “cop” originates, as Judge Kleinfeld asserted, with the ancient word for “seize.”

Wikipedia lists a slew of amusing police euphemisms that are worth a gander. The Greeks are among the most adept, calling theirs “Smurfs” because of their uniforms, and “Lumps” and “Boxer Briefs” because of their patrol cars. The Halifax police aren’t far behind, being known thereabouts as “The Big Big Big Big”, because of their “over-inflated sense of power,” and “The Mustached Pagoda”, which is “intended as a confusing and somewhat ambiguous insult.”

That’s to be expected in a place whose inhabitants are known as “Haligonians.” Terms used to describe people from a particular locality are called “demonyms,” and some amuse more than others. For example, residents of Cedar Rapids are called “Bunnies”, in reference to “See Der Rabbits.” And “Nutmeggers” live in Connecticut, an allusion to their state’s spice trade in the 1600s and 1700s, and the citizenry’s reputed practice of, as William F. Buckley, Jr. put it, “when they ran out of the real stuff, they sold sawdust instead and called it nutmeg; and everyone thought this absolutely hilarious, and [the state] celebrated its miscreants by nicknaming itself after the symbol of their misdeeds.”

Since I once stirred things up in Ester by wondering if their proper demonym was Esterites or Esteroids, I hesitate to speculate openly about the names residents of places like Wrangell, Juneau, Nenana, and Nome have for themselves. With my attempts failing to determine if they’re actually Wrangellians, Junovians, Nenananites, and Gnomes, I’d better just cop a plea of ignorance.

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To read more of Greg's columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=greg+hill

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