20 Slang Terms for Law Enforcement Personnel

By Mark Nichol

A variety of more or less colorful colloquialisms referring to police officers and similar authority figures have developed in American English, sometimes inspired by other languages. Here is a list of such terms.

1. barney: This gently derogatory term refers to Barney Fife, a bumbling small-town deputy sheriff in the classic 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show.

2. bear: This term, from truckers’ slang, alludes to a style of hat worn by some law enforcement personnel—one that resembles the one worn by fire-safety icon Smokey the Bear. (See also Smokey.)

3. the boys in blue: This folksy phrase refers to the frequent use of blue as the color of a police officer’s uniform—and harks back to a time when only men could become police officers.

4. bull: a term prevalent in the first half of the twentieth century, primarily referring to railroad police but pertaining to regular police officers as well and alluding to the aggressiveness of these officials.

5. cop: A truncation of copper from British English usage, referring to someone who cops, or captures.

6. dick: A derogatory abbreviation of detective.

7. federales: Originally a Spanish term for federal police in Mexico, but jocularly used in the United States to refer to police in general.

8. the feds: A truncation of federal, referring to federal law enforcement personnel.

9. five-O: A term for police derived from the title of the television series Hawaii Five-O, about a special police unit by that name.

10. flatfoot: A reference to a police officer, with several possible origins, including the association that police who walked a beat supposedly would get the medical condition of flat feet.

11. fuzz: Originally a British English term referring to felt-covered helmets worn by London police officers, later borrowed into American English.

12. G-man: A term (derived from “government man”) from the mid-twentieth century, referring to FBI agents.

13. gendarmes: Originally a French term for rural police officers, borrowed into American English as jocular slang.

14. gumshoe: A term alluding to soft-soled shoes worn by detectives that are more comfortable than hard-soled shoes and/or enable them to follow suspects surreptitiously.

15. the heat: A reference to the pressure that law enforcement officials apply to suspects.

16. the law: A collective term for law enforcement.

17. the man: A term alluding to the imposing authority of law enforcement personnel.

18. pig: A derogatory term dating back to the 1800s that fell into disuse but was revived during the civil rights era.

19. po-po: A reduplicative term referring to police officers.

20. Smokey: A term for law enforcement personnel, derived from an association of the style of hat worn by some state troopers with the one worn by Smokey the Bear.

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9 Responses to “20 Slang Terms for Law Enforcement Personnel”

  • Jake Marek

    #2, #20: My sister-in-law is a National Forest Ranger and their ilk is forever going ballistic over people who refer to “Smokey Bear” as “Smokey THE Bear.”
    #9: As I recall from the earliest incarnation of the show, Hawaii Five-0’s name is an homage to the fact that Hawaii is the 50th state.

  • Bill

    Yes, Jake, it is Smokey Bear. Even the New Yorker got this wrong about a year ago. I don’t know why so many do. It’s not “Mickey the Mouse” or “Donald the Duck.” Maybe people are confusing it with Winnie the Pooh, but what the heck is a pooh?

  • Roberta B.

    Well, Smokey the Bear’s name must have changed since I was small, and I’ll admit that was a long time ago. There was a little jingle in a PSA that was sung about “Smokey the Bear.”

    [verse]
    “With a Ranger’s hat and shovel and a pair of dungarees,
    You will find him in the forest, always sniffin’ at the breeze.
    People stop and pay attention when he tells ’em to beware,
    ‘Cause ev’ry body knows that he’s the Fire Preventin’ Bear.

    [refrain]
    Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear
    Prowlin’ and a-growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air
    He can find a fire before it starts to flame
    That’s why they call him Smokey,
    That was how he got his name.”
    ………and it goes on for 3 more verses.

  • Millie

    Straight from the official website [smokeybear.com]:

    “In 1952, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote the popular anthem that would launch a continuous debate about Smokey’s name. To maintain the rhythm of the song, they added “the” between “Smokey” and “Bear.” Due to the song’s popularity, Smokey Bear has been called “Smokey the Bear” by many adoring fans, but, in actuality, his name never changed. He’s still Smokey Bear.”

  • thebluebird11

    I’m with Roberta on this one…we always called him Smokey the Bear. A quick check in Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokey_Bear shows “Smokey Bear (also called Smokey the Bear).”
    @Bill: Off the top of my head I can think of Felix the cat and Barney the dinosaur, and IIRC there was Arnold (Ziffel) the pig (on Green Acres), so surely there must be other examples that follow that naming format.

  • Dale A. Wood

    More names with “the”: “Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent” (in a cartoon show), “Rocky the Flying Squirrel”, “Bullwinkle the Moose” (a.k.a. “Bullwinkle J. Moose”), “Billy the Kid”, “Frederick the Great”, “Peter the Great”, “George the Third”, “St. John the Baptist”, “St. John the Apostle”, and “St. John the Devine”, where for a long time, I thought the latter two were the same man – they always just called him “St. John”.

    In the early years of the use of radar in carrier-based fighter planes, there was one that was dramatically overloaded with crewmen, radar, and weapons. It had a three-man crew, radar equipment fore and aft, and machine guns for and aft. The Naval aviators and Marines who flew this one nicknamed it “Willie the Whale” !

    A proposed version of this one for the Air Force was called the “F – 10” (never produced in numbers), and this is why the Armed Forces have had fighter planes denominated by the F-4, F-5, F-6, F-7, F-8, F-9, F-11, F-12, F-14, and F-15, but never an “F-10” in active service. As for the “F-13”, I don’t believe that anyone wanted that number, despite the fact that we had the 13 original colonies and states.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Back to the police, and “bull”: Look up what “Bulle” means in German – has to do with the police, and nothing to do with bovines of any kind. By the way, the German word for “bull” is “das Stier”. In English, a “steer” is a castrated bull, but in German, a Stier is fully equipped for making offspring!

  • Dale A. Wood

    In law enforcement, a “T-man” was/is an enforcement officer for the Department of the Treasury** in the United States. During the time of gangsters, the T-men often caught bloody gangsters by finding about their illegal financial dealings (“Follow the money!”) especially failure to pay Federal income tax. That was how Al Capone (et al) was put into prison (Alcatraz), rather than for murder, felonious assaults, blackmail, illegal prostitution rings, etc. Much more recently, Congress has passed the RICO laws against corrupt criminal organizations.
    **I know a Russian lady who says “Ministry of Finance” when she is speaking Russian. That makes sense in many countries where it is the Ministry of Finance.
    Then there is the “Chancellor of the Exchequer”, who is about the same as the “Secretary of the Treasury”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I thought that a “gendarme” was a French police officer who is also a member of the French Army, but many be there is another word for that. In the U.S., Canada, and Australia, such police officers are strictly civilians, but in France there are some who are also members of the Army. In Germany there were/are “border police” who are much like soldiers because they are all armed with M-16 assault rifles.
    A famous member of the German speed-skating team who won multiple Olympic medals (Claudia Pechmann?) was a female member of the German border police, and she was tough: her events were races at 1500, 3000, and 5000 meters, and she won medals at four different Winter Olympics.
    Now in the Olympics, they have skiers who carry and fire rifles, but not skaters with rifles!

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