Cop Speak

Grant Barrett gbarrett at AMERICANDIALECT.ORG
Thu Jul 22 22:22:09 UTC 1999

On Thursday, July 22, 1999, Dennis R. Preston <preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU> wrote:
>I too have noticed this increase of "persons" (where I would say "people"
>or "folks").I don't know what to attribute it to.

I have a theory. Undeveloped and unresearched, it is this: the mode of speech used by law enforcement of all types in television shows, movies and news stories is lending prominence to certain words and modes of speech. A professor of mine shares this idea: she kept encountering "male" and "female" as nouns in papers discussing literary works, rather than "man" or "woman" as might be more appropriate for the topic at hand. "Persons" rather than "people," too, can be cop talk.
My father was a cop for 15 years, and I still remember him using the word "cohorts" as a plural noun meaning that each individual was him- or herself a singular cohort, rather than "cohort" in the more traditional sense, and as opposed to pals, gang, crew, team, etc., that might have been more appropriate when discussing criminals. He also, in moments of gravity and importance, likes to use more roundabout speech: "There is no reason to believe currently at this time..." A distinct characteristic of this kind of speech is the lack of contractions, but then we all do that, I think, when we are trying to sound official.

I also see it in amateur fiction and news writing on the Internet: descriptions of characters and people tend to sound like wanted posters: Caucasian male, 32, 6 foot 2, short brown hair. Maybe that's just bad writing.

Of course then there's another theory that I have from about ten years ago when I used to do resumes for people that jibes with some of what's been mentioned here. Clients often felt compelled to put everything on the document that they might have to put on an application form (this may say more about the types of jobs they were used to applying for, however). They would include words they considered more formal, or more intelligent sounding: Caucasian instead of white, words like "utilize" instead of "use" (a peeve of mine, sorry if I've mentioned it before), and I can't think of any else right now.

Grant Barrett

World New York

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