Cops Talk Funny

Discuss

89 Responses to “Cops Talk Funny”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Everyone should read George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946
    http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

  2. dculberson says:

    crrieger, I thought of the exact same thing.

    “Okay, sir, this is to figure out what your aptitude’s good at and get you a jail job while you’re being a particular individual in jail.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    the goal is to have speech that is objective and impersonal.

    why? – there’s more than one way to describe the same situation. If each police when confronted with the same situation can describe the situation in the same manner, that would make them appear impartial like robots performing a task – enforcing the law and evidence would be better collaborated for example during a trial.

  4. Wigwam Jones says:

    There are three very good reasons that cops use jargon that I can think of (yes, my background is in law enforcement):

    1) Cops write a lot of reports. Report-writing is a skill taught to police with technical accuracy as the goal, using words that cannot be easily construed to mean something else. “Arrested” and “apprehended” actually have two distinct and different meanings, so the words must be used appropriately.

    2) Cops testify in court. They will get torn apart by a good defense lawyer if their language is not precise. “I smelled marijuana on his breath,” is a very weak statement. Marijuana? The smell the smoke makes, or the smell the plant makes before you burn it. How can you be sure it was coming from his breath? Could it have been clinging to his clothes? Maybe it was a passenger who exhaled just as you walked up? So the cop is trained to say “I smelled the odor of burning marijuana emanating from the vehicle.” How does he know the smell of burning marijuana? He’s been subjected to a ‘controlled burn’ and the time and date are in his training record, available by subpoena to the defense. That’s just an example. But yes, ‘fleeing’ and ‘running’ are two different words, and if you say a person was ‘running away’ and the defense attorney makes a big issue out of the fact that his client cannot actually ‘run’ due to a knee injury (or something), you lose – so you say he was ‘fleeing’, which simply means leaving and refusing to stop. He might have been limping fast, and it is still ‘fleeing’.

    I don’t know why they would be ‘untraining’ police after having spent so much time training them to speak this way in court in the first place. Juries might be turned off by it, but defense lawyers will eat you up if you misspeak while giving sworn testimony. I mean, if you screw up while speaking in court (grin).

    3) Once cops start speaking this way, it becomes very natural, a patois like any other. And cops understand each other, they mostly all talk the same way. Cops don’t have many friend. Mostly other cops and other first responders and hospital shift workers. So they all learn the lingo, and they all speak it to one degree or another.

    It’s natural. Consider carnies, gypsies, and so on. Social subcultures which are outside of normal society, either by choice, ethnicity, work hours, or, as in the case of police, because they’re shunned by society unless needed.

  5. Xopher says:

    Chris 84: Other fatal ambiguities include…’Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’.

    In my opinion that was deliberate weaseling rather than unintentional ambiguity; that is, I think Henry meant to have Becket killed, but wanted deniability afterward…and I assume he had his hair-shirting “contrition” planned well in advance.

    Also, if you “show” that “that wasn’t what you meant” by executing the murderers, you don’t have to pay them what you promised them, and they can’t rat you out later.

    I doubt, actually, that Henry II invented this technique, but he certainly has been imitated ever since by commanders who are willing to betray both ethics and the people under them. Two words: Abu Ghraib.

  6. Suburbancowboy says:

    I am opposed to any language which is overstates the importance of things, or words that are just unnecessary to begin with. At the top of my list- pretty much anything that begins with “Pre”.

    I know Carlin had a bit about “Pre-boarding”. A ridiculous term.

    A big one I hate is “pre-owned cars”. Sorry, it’s a used car. Every car, even a new car was previously owned. The car company owned it first.

    Pre-Washed. When you buy salad at the supermarket, it says “pre-washed”. It is either washed or it is not. The “pre” adds nothing. It just needs to say washed.

  7. libelle says:

    @SCUBA SM: I take it you don’t work in the Aerospace industry. There, a four letter acronym is properly called an ETLA (Extended Three Letter Acronym).

    Then there are acronyms which are self-referential, which are known as TIARAs (TIARA Is A Recursive Acroym).

    It gets worse from there. :)

  8. bokodasu says:

    I can always tell when someone is police (sometimes military, but then usually MP) when they refer to something being “green in color,” when normal people just say “green”.

    (It comes from evidence; if you say someone has a “gold watch”, and you hand them back a tin watch that’s been painted gold, they can say, “hey, where’s my gold watch?” and then Bad Things Happen. So “gold in color” is a CYA term, and makes sense. But it gets silly when applied to non-metallic colors. What else is it going to be, green in size?)

    Then again, I work for the government. After a few years, the jargon just flows out whether you want it to or not.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Some municipalities still use publicly available VHF radio between the dispatcher and the officers on the ground, so it can be a lot of fun listening in. The code is definitely more terse over the air.

    Unfortuantely, many such systems have been changed over to digital trunked and switched systems, which are pretty hard to listen in on.

  10. Jonathan Harford says:

    Will the following guest please step down please?

  11. takeshi says:

    Years ago, I wrote an article about this very subject for a self-published book called How to Deal with Cops. In the article, I referred to the phenomenon as “Alleged Perpetrator Syndrome,” or APS, so named because of the tendency of police to use that very phrase when referring to a nameless defendant on television.

    It is not, as has been suggested here, that all chosen career paths have their own unique lexicons. They do, assuredly, but to varying degrees. For instance, part of a doctor’s training is the correct use of terminology relating to medicine, but you won’t hear a baker saying, “I must procure the sweet breadlike food from the dry heat of the food preparation compartment” when saying “I need to get the cake out of the oven” is so much simpler.

    A great deal of copspeak comes directly from legalese, though often with measurable errancy. It is, as has also been suggested here, that the offending cops wish to sound smarter than they are. It is not that police officers have been trained by their superiors to speak in this way, unlike lawyers, doctors, plumbers, electricians, computer programmers, ad infinitum. So, while many professionals are required to speak in a way that confounds the average person, most often it is to enhance specificity; not to diminish it. Can the same be said of cops who use terms like “alleged perpetrator”? The real lexicon of police is limited to grunts and insults, mostly.

    I know a lot of police officers, and the one thing I can tell you is: most detectives don’t talk that way, unless they’re on TV. Federal investigators don’t talk that way, except on TV. No one talks that way, unless they wish to convey a heightened sense of importance and/or understanding of a given situation. It is predominantly beat cops who do talk that way, 24/7. But not all of them do. One must assume that the ones who do it the most are also the ones who’ve watched the most episodes of Cops.

  12. agreatnotion says:

    As the person mentioned in the post as being fascinated with cop talk, I have to say that I’m most obsessed with non-cops who talk like cops in day-to-day life. It’s that whole “If I use more words to describe this situation I will sound smarter” thing. I consider it the adult version of a kid using the MS Word thesaurus to try and make themselves sound more sophisticated but end up choosing words that just sound ridiculous.

  13. Takuan says:

    OBAMA! LEGALIZE MARIJUANA NOW!

  14. allen says:

    I imagine that there are a lot of regulations about what is and isn’t permitted as a police officer (how much force is appropriate in what situations, for example), and that a lot of this institutional speech is a result of that (which is the opposite of what #20 is saying).

    However, I imagine that after a while, it gets to be like any workplace, with the keen young people trying to get promotions by talking the talk. I bet a lot of cops cringe when someone says “purport” around them in the same way I cringe when someone around me says “synergies”.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’m as against jargon for jargon’s sake as the next person but “apprehended the perpetrator” is very different from “I arrested the man”.

  16. takeshi says:

    @ Wigwam Jones:

    You use the term “jargon” to describe this phenomenon, and by doing so, you illustrate my point. Jargon is defined as: “the language, esp. the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group.”

    The words we’re discussing aren’t peculiar to cops. Not by a long shot. It is not the vocabulary, but the usage, that defines the “patois,” although I hesitate to call it that for the very same reason. You’re right in suggesting that a history of giving testimony will contribute to anyone’s use and misuse of the language, but the majority of cops I hear speaking in that way are just out of the academy.

    Veteran cops, on the other hand, usually go out of their way to combat such imprecision.

  17. Spikeles says:

    I support the idea of simplifying language, it’s doubleplusgood

  18. David Pescovitz says:

    Something similar to “cop talk” can be heard on shows like Judge Judy and People’s Court when average people are suing one another and trying, often badly, to talk like they imagine attorneys talk.

  19. Jerril says:

    Slightly off topic, but green is actually a word you might need to be careful about, because it can mean new, inexperienced, or in terms of wood – not dried, unseasoned, etc.

    Most of the time, you’re not talking about something where those meanings would be appropriate, but I guess if you’re in that precision mindset…

  20. arkizzle says:

    Am I the only one who is annoyed by the constant use of the word “gentleman” by both police officers and news people? They mean “man” but “gentleman” sounds better. I heard my favorite example of this a few days ago during the local news.

    Yep, same as the persistant use of the word “lady”, when “woman” is what they mean.

  21. sworm says:

    “Subject was resisting arrest. Subject threatened officer.”

    Subject was black and handcuffed but was talking back so I shot him in the back.

  22. LYNDON says:

    There was this one time many years ago in NZ when the TV had a cop who had witnessed some spectacular event or other. He started off:

    “I was standing at a stationary observation point, when…”

  23. GauchoAmigo says:

    Linguistics should be a required course in every school curriculum. It’s clearly something people are interested in and want to talk about, but most of us don’t know how.

  24. Anonymous says:

    @64–Wigwam,
    “Rate” and “speed” are essentially synonyms. Both refer to the amount of distance covered in a given time. You might need calibration for your eyes to be qualified to say that the rate was a high one but otherwise, the rest is just redundant.

    @67–Arkizzle,
    I agree with your thought about “lady”. The military seems to have taken your idea to an extreme by referring to all women as “females”. It seems the term “woman” is unacceptable for some reason. I wonder if this is left over from a time when wom..sorry, females were less than welcome in the US military.

  25. tikal2k says:

    There’s another reason for speaking in this lexicon-specific jargon: to do their job properly, cops need to detach themselves mentally from a lot of what they do and prevent their emotions from critically clouding their judgement. This is especially prevalent when there is a high level of physical risk involved in day-to-day activities. You also notice this a lot in medical and military terminology.

  26. bitrott says:

    This is precision, pure and simple. You may not respect it, but police work is a profession that often leaves NO ROOM for imprecision. This is no different than any other profession. As a programmer I’m expected to speak precisely, as a reader I appreciate precision, as a conversationalist I get all weak in the knees when precision is employed. Why would “cop talk” be any different?

  27. ekricyote says:

    You have the right to remain unconscious.

    Anything you say…can’t be much.

  28. Takuan says:

    looking forward to how the BART station murder will be phrased in court.

  29. Wigwam Jones says:

    @34 takeshi

    I can only state that during the time I worked in law enforcement (military and civilian, 10 years total, 1980′s), ‘cop talk’ was common among officers. With respect, I believe most who know how cops talk are or were cops. It may very well be the case that some cops ‘police’ (pardon the pun) their language in front of civilians.

    Others use the same lingo, as noted in this thread, and I sometimes cringe when I hear it used badly or inappropriately – or, like many slang terms, long after it has fallen out of use amongst ‘real’ police. The never-ending use of the term ‘perp walk’ on television always makes me laugh – I never heard a cop call it that. It used to be common to call tennis shoes ‘felony flyers’, but it has been awhile since I’ve heard them called that – police jargon comes and goes.

    Reporters, court officials (not just the teevee kind) and others who rub up against cops will sometimes attempt to copy the mannerisms and language they hear from police. I won’t claim to know why, but it could be an attempt to be ‘one of the guys’.

    Police tend to be cliquish, as I’m sure many know. Being ostracized from society, many also tend to ostracize themselves and stick to their own. Joseph Wambaugh’s books were very accurate depictions of the society of police, IMHO.

    I don’t work in law enforcement anymore, by choice. It’s a hard life, and it trains people (IMHO) to treat those-who-are-not-cops as criminals or potential criminals. Everyone is a liar, everyone is a crook, everyone has an angle. Everyone is out to catch you wrong, so you cover each other’s backsides and develop an us-versus-them mentality after awhile.

    I cannot prove, but I suspect, that a lot of the use of jargon is simply to make it easy to keep the wall up between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

    It’s like a passphrase – you speak the lingo and I trust you and let my guard down. I don’t need to see a badge or ID, I know who you are and what your values are. You’re one of us, an equal. That’s how that kid was able to pretend to be a Chicago cop the other day – he got the words and moves down, he came off as one of them, and they bought it for a little while.

  30. FoetusNail says:

    Once while sitting in court, I overheard some troopers discussing the judge and how to deal with him. Apparently, when another trooper had stated his name for the record, he said he was Trooper John Smith, to this the judge responded that it was nice his mother thought to name him Trooper.

  31. yrogerg says:

    Honestly, I’ve known very few cops (or EMTs and Firefighters) who talk this way amongst themselves or in casual conversation. For matters of official record, like testimony or the like, yes. This is a report-making skill, that, as other people have pointed out, focuses primarily on using language that is impersonal, neutral, and precise, above all else.

    Any line of work that were report-making is a significant portion of the work has some degree of this; I work closely with a number of medical doctors and surgeons, and all of their dictations, most of their emails, etc. take this form, as well. Does this mean that this is how the doctors, nurses, and administrative support talk amonst themselves most of the time? Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.

    I dunno, BB’s topical posts seem increasingly full of fail lately.

  32. Takuan says:

    got you talkin’ though

  33. Brainspore says:

    Many other professions do have their own brand of “jargon” but most of the time it exists to enhance specificity rather than to obfuscate it.

    For example, a doctor might say “complex fracture of the fourth metatarsal” rather than “broken foot bone” in order to make it completely unambiguous which bone and type of break he’s talking about.

    But when a cop says “he fled in the vehicle” instead of “he fled in a red SUV” the result is less information, not more.

  34. Wigwam Jones says:

    I dunno, BB’s topical posts seem increasingly full of fail lately.

    Full of fail, perhaps, but I find recent topics more interesting than those that were AD. My only question is if this is the year 0 or the year 1.

  35. Patrick Dodds says:

    Thanks for your posts Wigwam – interesting, especially the “controlled burn” – never knew that and I wonder if they do the same thing in the uk?

    Where I work we occasionally have contact with the police – my favourite bit of cop talk was “she showed no sign of visual disturbance”, something I had to ask the WPC to translate – it meant “she wasn’t crying”.

  36. takeshi says:

    Wigwam:

    No offense, of course, is meant by my screed. I am simply against the use of the term “jargon” to describe the usage.

    I am friends with a good number of cops, both by profession and by choice. I agree with you wholeheartedly that being a cop is tough, and that it breeds an “us vs. them” mentality like no other career can. That said, I’m sure you can understand my meaning here.

    I suppose that the use of the term “jargon” is better than “terminology,” but it’s still imprecise. And to speak to a few others here who think that saying, “I apprehended the perpetrator” is somehow more precise than “I arrested the man,” well… a man is innocent until proven guilty, no? Such a statement is UTTERLY imprecise until the perp’s been convicted. How can someone be a “perpetrator” when he’s done no perpetrating?

    The assumption that cops speak this way out of a need for precision is ludicrous. The fact is: they speak this way because they wish to seem more precise. The effect, as illustrated in this post, can be just the opposite. And yes, Wigwam, many beat cops do still talk this way. I didn’t mean to leave you with the impression that it’s gone out of style. But as with so many professions, being a cop is both easier and harder today as it was twenty years ago. One big difference is that, nowadays, it’s far easier to be friends with cops.

    I think we’ve reached a kind of homogenization as a culture that prevents us from being too critical of any individual, simply on the merits of their chosen profession. In the 1960s, for instance, anti-war demonstrators would frequently spit on soldiers in uniform, call them names, etc. This behavior would be condemned today, and fairly so. Likewise, many countercultural types I know give cops a break, at least until they’re arrested. You’d have to be brain-dead to think that cops have easy jobs.

    Of course, this perversion of justice has trickled over into Cop Land, as well. Some of my cop friends smoke grass and play GTA IV. Some of them regularly attend plays and the opera. Some of them even read books every now and then. And at least one of them is a member of the Church of the Subgenius. It’s not as insular being a cop these days, and I’ve had this very discussion about cops’ use of language with rooms full of cops. It’s almost a joke to those of them who don’t speak like that.

    Anyway, I blame Jack Webb.

  37. imipak says:

    @everyone who observed that jargon is not unique to police and military contexts

    http://www.bullshitbingo.net/cards/bullshit/

    and, from the field of infosec (that’s what we call it, here at Minilove):

    http://www.crypto.com/bingo/pr

  38. Anonymous says:

    If you look carefully at the two lists, you will notice that “lingo” is basically a piling up of Latin cognates, Latin being the quondam, er, one-time language of the English courts.

    I have always wondered whether when they do this police officers are showing off that they are court officers, assuming the (primarily defensive) position of official witnesses, shifting discussion into a more formal register, or simply doing what has always been done.

  39. TEKNA2007 says:

    Liking this one:

    Officer: I attempted to apply an escort hold to the subject, but I noted resistive tension in his arm, so I applied pain compliance instead. The subject actively resisted, so I administered a focused knee strike to the lower abdominal area, and decentralized the subject.

    This is just nuts. Handled in a way guaranteed to result in conflict. In an attempt to get someone not to pull away, you apply a stimulus known to make people pull away.

  40. ab3a says:

    Nearly every career suffers from idiotic and pretentious jargon. While some of it is simply an effort to describe precise nuances of meaning, most of the time it is puffery.

    It is an effort to sound important, assuming that one is so feeble minded that such talk impresses. But if you take the time to actually parse what these people say, you’ll notice that most of the time, they’re selling you the emperor’s new clothes.

    Most professions that deal with public relations, sales, and management are full of this awful behavior. Technical people often have to invent creative terms to describe the world around them. However, managers deal with situations as old as recorded history. We already have the vocabulary to deal with the situation. They mustn’t let themselves feel inferior by using small words, so they meet with their other buddies at the country club and they invent new buzzwords to describe the same old things.

    As for me, I prefer to use small words in profound ways. People will know right away whether they understand what I’m saying or not. And hopefully if they do, they’ll do something revolutionary:

    They’ll ask a question.

    Food for thought…

  41. Nixar says:

    You know what’s crazy, it’s the same phenomenon in French! I wonder what it’s like in other languages.

  42. Noelegy says:

    No funnier than corporate types who use (and make up) big words to sound ah, more intelligent. I will never forget the teleconferenced meeting I once had to attend in which a corporate office talking head actually said the word “implementationalize” and then outdid herself minutes later with “implementationalization.”

  43. fnordianslip says:

    I heard some muppet say something along the lines of “we need to securitize it” the other day. WTF? Isn’t “to secure” a verb anymore?

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      I heard some muppet say something along the lines of “we need to securitize it” the other day.

      What a moron. Everyone knows it’s ‘securitate’.

  44. Antinous / Moderator says:

    We have our own jargon too.

    Full of fail = IDCSESU (I don’t care so everybody shut up).

  45. pliers says:

    It’s true–have you ever once heard a cop say “guy” or “person” instead of “indivudual”? The ridiculous lengths cops go to with their Officialese is amazing. Come on–the fact that you’re a total meathead just makes you sound that much more stupid.

  46. Wigwam Jones says:

    @ 47 Patrick Dodds

    The use of the ‘controlled burn’ came about where I worked simply because if a police officer says he smelled the odor of burning marijuana on the stand, the defense attorney is going to ask “Oh yeah, what’s it smell like then? How do you know what it smells like?” This is especially true if the odor is used as probable cause that leads to something more. And yes, we say ‘pc for a stop’. Just shorthand.

    @ 48 takeshi

    I understand now. I didn’t realize the term ‘jargon’ was bothering you.

    As to ‘arrest’ versus ‘apprehend’. The term I always used and heard used was ‘take into custody’. Between ourselves, we said we ‘put the habbeus grabbus on him’.

    I’ve never heard a cop call someone a ‘perp’, actually. A ‘suspect’, yes. However, I have noticed that some terms differ by location, and some go out of style. A ‘deuce’ is a DUI, even though it is only California Vehicle Code 502 that applies to DUI (as I recall). Still, cops in Colorado know what a deuce is. And everyone has heard of a 5150 (crazy person), also a term I first heard in California exclusively amongst police. Code four is code four, even in jurisdictions that don’t use code or ten-code anymore. Code three is still lights and sirens. When you bring a suspect in to the sally port in hand-irons, you tell them to ‘cop a squat’. A ‘prosecutor’ is a kind of nightstick, not an attorney.

    Wow, memories. I haven’t used most of those terms in years.

  47. samuraizenu says:

    “I detained the suspect” = “I shot the M*** F***er, he ain’t going anywhere!”

  48. Brainspore says:

    Nearly every career suffers from idiotic and pretentious jargon. While some of it is simply an effort to describe precise nuances of meaning, most of the time it is puffery.

    A good rule of thumb to tell the two apart is to listen to how people in the profession talk among themselves. When doctors talk shop among themselves it’s a pretty safe bet they still use their jargon, but I’d bet good money that police officers don’t use copspeak in the break room.

  49. Wigwam Jones says:

    @ 70 Brainspore

    But when a cop says “he fled in the vehicle” instead of “he fled in a red SUV” the result is less information, not more.

    I know it seems that way, but in court, the idea is to provide the most amount of information that cannot be intentionally misconstrued by a defense attorney. I’m sorry, that’s just how it is. Those guys are paid to try to get their clients off, and they attack like pit bulls.

    If you say it was an SUV, you’ll be asked to show on the defendant’s registration where it says “SUV” and not the make and model. If you say ‘vehicle’ then you’re safe. Otherwise, the defense attorney pries you open and ‘demonstrates’ to the judge or jury that you made mistakes. One mistake means there could be more. Element of doubt is introduced.

    Blame the attorneys. We talk like that because we have to.

    By the same token, we say ‘fled’ instead of ‘ran’ because the attorney will try to show the defendant cannot actually ‘run’. Fled just means left the scene and refused to stop when ordered.

    We use the terms that can’t easily be torn apart by defense attorneys looking for anything to make the police officer appear to have been mistaken, or worse, to have lied.

    I spent twenty minutes on the stand once, defending my assertion that a building I had responded to was “L-shaped.” Apparently, there are all kinds of “L” letters in the world. Not all are ninety-degree angles. Sounds rediculous? Blame the defense attorney – he’s the one who grilled me. After that, I said ‘approximate 90 degree angle’.

    We don’t do it to sound pompous or to obfuscate. We do it to avoid having our cases thrown out of court because we said a building was “L” shaped.

  50. jtegnell says:

    It’s a lot like military jarhead speak as well.

    I imagine part of it is to remove emotional subjectivity so that they can actually do a job that, like soldiers, is in reality pretty awful and forces them to do morally offensive things at times.

  51. arkizzle says:

    Not just cops!

    I notice this kind of speak all the time on American news or reality shows, whenever an interviewed person relates events in a ‘witness’-type capacity, even if it isn’t in terms of law or criminal acts.

    Please don’t encourage it! It’s nasty, and makes people sound like they’re dumber than they actually are :)

  52. Anonymous says:

    Am I the only one who is annoyed by the constant use of the word “gentleman” by both police officers and news people? They mean “man” but “gentleman” sounds better. I heard my favorite example of this a few days ago during the local news.

    “The gentleman then stabbed me in the face.”

    I’m a bit surprised that there have been this many posts and still no mention of the “high rate of speed” construct.

  53. mhains says:

    As a guy in the media, it drives me NUTS when cop reporters parrot this drivel. My favourite:

    “The suspect male fled on foot and made good his escape.”

  54. Wigwam Jones says:

    @ 56 jtegnell

    Semper Fi! MP Co, HQBn, 1stMarDiv, 1981-1984.

  55. Takuan says:

    “I searched her in the bumnal region”

  56. shawnaroo says:

    I think most careers have their own lexicon, at least specific to the work that they do. I talk about buildings way differently at work than I do when I’m talking to my grandparents about my house or whatever. Getting work done requires a much more complex and specific way of describing things than my average conversation about whatever else happens to be going on in my life.

    It just gets extra weird with cops, because so much of their job deals with a lot of stuff that’s part of the more mundane “everyday stuff” of other people’s lives.

  57. demidan says:

    “I interviewed the suspect”- I beat the crap out of,,,

  58. jackhammer says:

    Here in Ireland, the cops (known as Gardai Siochana, Irish for ‘guardians of the peace’) habitually refer to a car as a ‘vehicle’, pronounced ‘veh-hick-el’. No-one knows why…

  59. Pedro says:

    Not just cops, and not just in the US. Here in Portugal almost everyone talks like that. Even the farmer! They think it makes them sound smart, but it’s quite the opposite.

  60. Takuan says:

    “I was proceeding in a Southerly direction, milord, when I heard uh, strange
    sounds coming from the Walldor place, milord. A sort of boogie-woogie music
    was being played. On further investigation, I saw the defendant standing there
    with a guitar and an old hat on the floor collecting pennies. Well, I decided that
    uh, he was contravening a breach of the peace, there as there was a traffic jam
    about five miles long down on Walldor street, wondering what all the uh, fuss was
    about, so then I arrested the uh, defendant”

    “Uh, just one moment, officer. Wh-what is this boogie-woogie music here we’re
    talking about?”

    “Oh, well milord”, said the officer, getting out his notebook, obviously been up
    doing his homework, “it’s a kind of jazz rhythm music peculiar to the American
    negro”

    “Oh. What was the defendant doing, uh, playing this kind of music there in
    Walldor street?”

    Anyway, I got off with a caution, a year’s conditional discharge, but I’ll always
    remember that policeman and his boogie-woogie, so don’t try to lay no
    boogie-woogie on the king of rock and roll.

  61. whitt says:

    If the writer of this article has spent a significant amount of time with police officers, as she claims, she should not appear so….well, clueless. Officers *are* trained to use a descriptive language set that emphasizes denotative precision and objectivity. This is both professional and appropriate: the rights and freedom of individuals are at stake. This does not mean that some officers are innocent of using police jargon to obfuscate; however, that is why we have trial by jury.

  62. howaboutthisdangit says:

    When I worked in private security, I learned report writing from people in both camps – those who believed that we must use “copspeak” to eliminate ambiguity and personal touches from our reports, and others who thought that overly technical or dry writing would leave a bad impression on the poor saps who got stuck reading it. I eventually joined the second camp.

    I’ve seen many incident reports in which the authors were so intently focused on getting the jargon right that the reports themselves were incomprehensible.

  63. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says:

    Having just finished two weeks of service on a grand jury, I’m pretty sure this diction isn’t entirely the cops’ fault.

    Nor, Takuan not withstanding, is it because of “weaselly lawyers” and their “lying games in court that seek to make the poorer argument the better”. (Memo to Takuan: Other peoples’ lawyers are always “weaselly”. When you yourself need one, it’s amazing how quickly that “weasellyness” becomes heroic resourcefulness.)

    It’s because the rules of grand jury proceedings, in most of the states that use grand juries to indict for routine crimes (about half the states), are remarkably rigid with regard to what is and isn’t speculation and/or hearsay. “I obtained an item that purported to be an envelope from the individual” may sound like a parody of the Fair Witness from Stranger in a Strange Land, but it’s how cops need to talk when testifying to a grand jury, if they don’t want the whole proceeding to be called into question by the judge who later inherits the case.

    I’m not saying that every piece of “I searched her in the bumnal region” language is in fact required; I’m just saying that this kind of thing is the result of people who aren’t legal whizzes trying to adapt their speech to some very formal and draconian requirements. After two weeks of watching it, I have (I think) as measured an opinion of cops as a class as I ever did, which is to say, most of them are reasonable human beings and a scary minority are really bad. But I do have an increased sympathy for this kind of “cop talk,” and where it comes from.

  64. Takuan says:

    the day I meet a lawyer that actually hears anything the client says and then acts on explicit,paid-for instructions, then I may entertain your suggestion. In the interim,I will continue with my quick spade to the head and hasty shallow grave program. It works better.

  65. Charlie Lesoine says:

    Who told cops to talk that way in the first place? Do they have a cop talk manual or what?

  66. Takuan says:

    meh, blame the weaselly lawyers (as usual)they are the ones responsible with their lying games in court that seek to make the poorer argument the better.

  67. crrieger says:

    Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy does a great job of making fun of the people in legal positions, judges and cops, by having them say things like “particular individual” or “We’re engaged in procure your tattoo.” It’s pretty painful to listen to, but perfectly satires that sense of superior intelligence every beat cop is certain he has. While true that every profession has its own lexicon (I’m in education and they love to acronym things as much as the military), I find law enforcement just does it as a means of making things sound more “official.”

  68. Anonymous says:

    I heard some muppet say something along the lines of “we need to securitize it” the other day. WTF? Isn’t “to secure” a verb anymore?

    They heard a piece of financial news and misunderstood it. “Securitize x” doesn’t mean “secure x”; it means “to issue a security backed by x” — of the “financial instrument” sort, that is. It’s what Fannie Mae does.

  69. Chris Williams says:

    Some of us are paying close attention to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by the Met. One of the key cock-ups in that case was that the operation commander said at one point “Stop him from going on the Tube.” This was interpreted to mean “at all costs”.

    Now, despite all the attention subsequently paid to ‘Operation Kratos’ (Shorter: “shoot them in the head without warning”), on that day the Met were _not_ implementing the Kratos guidelines. It might have been better if they had been: Kratos apparently contains a list of agreed code phrases for what to do next, designed to remove ambiguity. So if Cmdr Dick had been working under Kratos guidelines, she’d have to have said something like “Code Red” [tr. "shoot the suspect several times in the head"] or “Code blue” ["make an armed challenge of the suspect and only shoot them if they do anything suspicious"] or “Code Yellow” [tr. "make an armed challenge of the suspect and only shoot them if they do anything that is an obvious threat."] Obvious orders: obvious chain of responsibility.

    NB – I’ve made up the purported codes here. I don’t know what they are.

    Other fatal ambiguities include: ‘Let him have it’ and ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’.

  70. skygzr says:

    ‘gained entry to the vehicle”….”broke into the car”

  71. Anonymous says:

    /\ “We must find out what your aptitude’s good at while you’re being a particular individual in jail” always makes me laugh.

  72. Antinous / Moderator says:

    If the writer of this article has spent a significant amount of time with police officers, as she claims, she should not appear so….well, clueless.

    It’s posted on what appears to be a very professional law enforcement website. Did you follow the link? She’s advocating for the police.

  73. ChrisGiarmo says:

    my best friend’s mom totally uses the word “vehicle” when talking about her Saturn SUV.

    “jessie, i was so mad at your sister for borrowing my purse last night that this morning i took her coach bag and i locked it in my vehicle.”

    she used to be in the army. any correlation?

  74. mgfarrelly says:

    Obviously this can go to extremes, but I understand the underlying principle which is precision. If you write in a report “I saw him run away” and there is any confusion as to the “him” is, any half-decent defense attorney can use that to crack a case.

    How many cops are required to have college degrees? Where as the lawyers scrutinizing their reports all have JDs. Lawyers talk funny too.

  75. Skullhunter says:

    Now that the hard work of deconstructing cop talk is done, maybe someone can figure out how to break down some other law enforcement peculiarities. Like “cops are universally reviled until they’re needed”, “cops have the toughest most dangerous job”, “because their job is so tough, it’s understandable if they lie to/intimidate/harass/taser/beat/shoot people under circumstances you civilians don’t agree with”, “you civilians don’t understand what it’s like to be a cop so you have no right to question or criticize what they do” and of course my favorite “if you hate cops so much, obviously you’re a criminal of some sort or you’re a hypocrite who’ll call them at the first sign of trouble”.

  76. nonplus says:

    This is most definitely not limited to police. Similar obfuscated language can be seen all over the place (education, academia, law, marketing, blogs ;-) It’s stilted and pretentious and annoys the crap out of me.

    I totally support the Plain Language and Plain English initiatives pushed by the US and UK governments. Not that I’m holding my breath about them being successful…

  77. leebenningfield says:

    “I obtained an item that purported to be an envelope from the individual”

    This one doesn’t make any sense. How can an item purport to be an envelope? Is it something that doesn’t look like an envelope, or only vaguely resembles an envelope that has the word “envelope” written on it?

    The only was I can reconcile this is to change it slightly:

    “I obtained an item that was purported to be an envelope from the individual”

  78. Phikus says:

    I used minimal force to apprehend the perpetrator… I tased the fuck out of him.

  79. Scuba SM says:

    I know I’m at work when I construct coherent, understandable sentences composed entirely of TLAs and FLAs. (Three and Four letter acronyms, respectively.)

  80. Chris Williams says:

    I think that a lot of this is police retention of archaic legal language, much of which is lifted from the laws that they are enforcing. Thus it lags, sometimes by a considerable margin, popular use.

    To take one of the examples above, in British legal practice, ‘apprehended’ used to be used far more than ‘arrested’. A quick’n’dirty search of the Old Bailey online website shows that in the period 1674-1800, the ratio of apprehended to arrested was 82 to 18. In the period 1800-1913 it reversed: 31 cases featured the word ‘apprehend’ to every 69 that involved ‘arrest’.

    There’s a research paper in this somewhere, which I’ve been meaning to write for quite some time now.

  81. Anonymous says:

    This type of language is obfuscation. It appears whenever the speaker may be questioned about what he has said, and have legal consequences depending on how his words are interpreted. It is designed to allow multiple reinterpretations.

  82. seer says:

    @Tak: Long John Baldry FTW!

    thanks for reminding me.

  83. Ryan Davidson says:

    Wigwam, you’ve nailed it, and your detractors just don’t get it.

    Let’s analyze these alleged “obfuscations” and see what would happen if a cop used the “normal” versions on the stand.

    Cop: “He said…”
    Defense Counsel: “Did he actually use those words or are you putting words in my client’s mouth?”
    Using “He indicated” would avoid this, as it could encompass not only a paraphrase but any non-verbal communication involved.

    Cop: “I worked for…”
    Defense Counsel: “You say you ‘worked for’ them? Were you an independent contractor or were you actually employed by the police? Were you in fact in uniform at the time?”
    Saying “I have been employed by” avoids this. Even if everything is on the up-and-up, giving the defense a chance to badger your witness is just bad.

    Cop: “I got out of the car.”
    Defense Counsel: “How was my client to know that this was an official police stop? Were you or were you not in a marked police cruiser?”
    Just an unnecessary step there.

    Cop: “I smelled marijuana on his breath.”
    Defense Counsel: “Objection! The witness has no personal knowledge of what, if anything, my client may or may not have been smoking.”
    This could actually get stricken from the record, making the prosecution look incompetent. The cop can only testify to his impressions, not to events he has not personally witnessed, i.e. the defendant burning one down.

    A lot of those “obfuscations” actually involve evidentiary or legal conclusions which police officers are generally not qualified to make, and using the “normal” expressions will always produce an objection from halfway competent defense attorneys. Witness can only testify to their personal knowledge. Even if there isn’t anything substantive won, having objections sustained always makes your side look better. Likewise, being successfully objected to makes you look bad.

    Litigation is highly ritualistic. There are precise rules which must be followed to the letter. Say what you like about it, if you were to read the transcript of a criminal trial tried by competent attorneys there would be absolutely no ambiguity as to the testimony of the witnesses. One might be left to determine what happened out of several plausible options, but there shouldn’t be any question as to who said what in the courtroom and what they meant by it.

    As a result, police officers are generally trained not to make statements that can be used against them in litigation. Police reports aren’t written for general consumption. They’re written for the witness stand. This is also why media outlets will never call someone a murderer, only an “alleged murderer” until they’re convicted: actually using the term would subject them to a libel suit which they would lose.

    Still, it’s rather amusing to watch a culture which is normally quite adamant about clarity and precision in its own environment disparage clarity and precision in professions of which the vast majority of speakers are not members. Just because you think it’s silly doesn’t mean that it is.

  84. weatherman says:

    I think Chris Williams and others above are right when they suggest that this sort of phrasing, which has its basis in a slightly archaic legal language, makes perfect sense and is not indicative of cops being stupid.

    Here’s another thing that I’ve noticed though, which might be another topic for a research paper; in the inner-city black community the use of this sort of language has crossed over to some extent. For instance, I’ve noticed a lot more black people saying things like “I met this female last night.” I suspect that the reason for this is that the police maintain such a strong and imposing presence in those areas. Or maybe I’m wrong. It’ll take a team of grad students in linguistics to know…

  85. steveiwonder says:

    Unfortunately cultural influences seem to encourage this kind of thing. Scientific writing takes this to extremes.

    Here is some more advice given to authors: “Every scientist should avoid jargon” (Day). “Shortness is a merit in words” (Fowler). ‘avoid fancy words” (Strunk and White). But scientists who have followed it know that their colleagues don’t agree. The word “get” in their manuscripts is crossed out and replaced with “obtain” (occasionally with the comment “colloquial” in the margin). “Use” becomes utilize, “method” becomes (usually incorrectly) “methodology”, and so on.

    - Leon Avery Nature 379:293 23 Jan 1996

  86. Takuan says:

    bullshit all. Just weigh his wallet and jail/kill or release accordingly. Like always.

  87. Wigwam Jones says:

    @ #57 Anonymous

    Am I the only one who is annoyed by the constant use of the word “gentleman” by both police officers and news people? They mean “man” but “gentleman” sounds better. I heard my favorite example of this a few days ago during the local news.

    I hear it a lot too, but I never really thought about about it. I think I’ve heard it from others besides law enforcement and media types.

    “high rate of speed” construct.

    I have used that term in reports myself. I do not have calibrated eyeballs, so I don’t say the person was speeding (though any fool could see they were, you can’t say it in a report unless you intend to prove it in court). I suppose I could have just said ‘fast’. No idea why I never did, it was just the way I was trained.

    Like saying ‘responded to the residence’ as opposed to ‘went to the address’. Just a form of speech I was taught to use – on reflection, I’m sure there are lots of terms that would have worked as well.

    It never really bothered me, though.

  88. arkizzle says:

    The PlainEnglish website that NonPlus linked runs a “Golden Bull Awards for Gobbledygook”.

    http://s190934979.websitehome.co.uk/golden_bull_awards/

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