Word Histories

Etymologies derived from the files of the Dictionary of American Regional English



“Jerry Garcia and everyone else in the band certainly don’t want to be cops,” Dennis McNally, the publicist for the rock band The Grateful Dead, said in an interview, “but they had to do these things if they were going to be able to keep playing.” McNally’s comments referred to steps the band had taken to quell unruly crowds at concerts. Popular explanations of the origin of cop have been around almost as long as the word itself (1859). One of these holds that it is an acronym for “constable on patrol” or “constabulary of police” or even “chief of police.” (Whichever, the idea is that the acronym would have gained currency from policemen’s adding C.O.P. after their names on official reports.) According to another popular etymology, cop is shortened from copper, because the uniforms of the London police had large copper buttons—or, alternatively, had star-shaped copper shields. Cop is indeed a shortened form of copper, but not the copper that refers to a metal. Instead, it is a noun that evolved from the verb cop (to capture, nab), meaning “one who cops” — that is, one who captures. Cop itself is probably from the Dutch kapen (to steal) or perhaps from the related Middle French caper (to seize). Cop is ultimately from the Latin caupo (tradesman); the sense development would have been “trader” to “buyer, to buy” to “buy unfairly” to “take, seize, steal.” This Latin word also gave us the English cheap.


“DODGERS MAUL METS IN A 4-HOUR FIASCO”—thus did the New York Times sports page characterize a loss by the lackluster Mets last July. A fiasco is a dismal failure, and the word was originally used in the theater to describe a play or musical that struck out. It originates in the Italian expression far fiasco, literally “to make a bottle" or “to make a flask.” Explanations for the development of the meaning “failure” from “make a bottle” are various. One involves the Bolognese actor Domenico Biancolelli, who, in an appearance as Arlecchino—that is, a harlequin— around 1681, improvised a soliloquy on the subject of a flask that he was holding. The improvisation failed, and the resourceful Biancolelli addressed the flask, saying: “It’s your fault if I sound like a beast this evening!” Whereupon he tossed the flask over his shoulder. Thereafter, whenever an actor bombed, he would say, “I got Arlecchino’s flask.” Another explanation starts with the idea that a fiasco is not just any bottle but the long-necked, round-bottomed kind of wine bottle that cannot stand upright without a plaited-reed base. This could have yielded the sense “something that cannot stand on its own.” A final theory for the origin of far fiasco involves Venetian glassblowers, who, if they found a flaw in an elaborate piece they were working on, did not discard it but instead made it into a common bottle or flask.


The decisive American victory in the Gulf War was sullied when the United States abandoned Kurdish insurgents after having encouraged them to rebel against Saddam Hussein. General Norman Schwarzkopf, in a news conference, tried to put the matter into perspective. “It’s important to remember that this [Kurdish] rebellion has been going on for many, many years,” he said. “To somehow imply that the rebellion just started, to somehow imply that because we did not continue for one more day the attack, that the rebellion did not succeed, is bogus.” The history of bogus (spurious, a sham) is uncertain. James Russell Lowell believed that it derives from the French bagasse, which refers to the detritus of sugarcane after the juice has been expressed; the word for this worthless product would then have been applied to other worthless or spurious things. Another explanation involves a supposed swindler with the Italian name Borghese. The most commonly accepted explanation is that bogus is from the name of a curiouslooking machine that made counterfeit money early in the nineteenth century (“He never procured the casting of a Bogus at one of our furnaces”— Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph, 1827), the money itself soon coming to be called bogus. This bogus may be a version of tantrabogus, and a note in the Oxford English Dictionary cites a communication from an American noting that tantrabogus “was commonly applied in Vermont to any ill-looking object.” Tantrabogus is itself a variant of the English dialectical tantrabobus or tantarabobus, a name for the devil and probably related to bogey (devil, goblin, bugbear).