Police, Policy, and Politics

By Mark Nichol

Are police and policy related? Not only are they cognates, but they used to mean the same thing—and politics is descended from the same word as well.

That word is polis, the Greek term for a city as well as for the concept of the city-state and the body of citizens who constituted that state. This word became the basis for a number of compounds, including acropolis, which means “upper city” but refers to the fortified heights of a city. (The prefix acro- is also seen in such words as acrobat, which literally means “high dancer,” and acrophobia, which pertains to a fear of heights.) Acropoles in ancient Greece were generally located the first inhabited part of a settlement (chosen for its defensive properties and therefore the location of the community’s citadel); the Acropolis of Athens is the exemplar of such locations.

Another term is metropolis (literally, “mother city”), originally denoting the capital or principal city of a province but now used to describe any major city. The adjective metropolitan describes the characteristics of a city, often including its underground railway system, which is sometimes abbreviated to metro, but the word also serves as a noun for a Greek Orthodox bishop who oversees other bishops and for the see, or seat, of his administration.

Megalopolis, featuring the prefix mega-, meaning “great,” is the name of an actual city in Greece but also refers generically to an especially large city or a cluster of cities—technically, one with more than ten million people. (A related adjective is cosmopolitan, which stems from the noun cosmopolite, a rare term meaning “citizen of the word”; the equally unusual word cosmopolis describes a sophisticated city. Meanwhile, a necropolis—the prefix means “dead”—is a large cemetery.)

Greek names for other ancient cities, such as Constantinople/Istanbul (“Constantine’s city”/“to the city”) and Persepolis (“city of the Persians”), include the word; several modern cities, including the American municipalities of Annapolis, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis, follow this tradition.

Originally, police, like policy, referred to civil administration (both come from the intermediate Latin noun politia), but by the early 1700s, it came to apply specifically to law enforcement, and within about a century that was its only sense. Enforcers soon came to be called police, as well as policemen (later, policewomen was adopted for female officers, and the neutral term “police officer” now prevails for all personnel), and the word also became a verb describing the action of law enforcement or the keeping of order in general. (Later, policier came to describe a novel, film, or television program dealing with the solving of crimes.)

The two meanings of policy apparently come from different sources. The sense of “approach” or “way of management” derives from polis, but the word for an insurance contract may stem from the Latin word apodexis, meaning “proof.” However, politics, politician, and other such words pertaining to public affairs also derive from polis.

An interesting divergence occurred with political and politic, which both originated as adjectives meaning “pertaining to public affairs”; the latter word acquired the additional sense of “prudent” and rarely applies to politics anymore, though the verb form, and the noun form politicking, do. (The k was added to the latter word, as it is to picnicking and a few other words, to clarify that the consonant sound before -ing is hard.)

Polite and its derivatives impolite and politesse are unrelated, stemming not from polis but from polire, a Latin verb meaning “polish” (and the source of polish as well) or “smooth.”

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