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Fuzz

Q From Kelly Harney: I have been challenged with finding the origin of the word fuzz in referring to the police. Haven’t had any luck.

A I’m not surprised. Nobody knows for sure. But, as usual, that hasn’t stopped lots of people coming up with ideas. We are sure that it was originally an American expression, first recorded in the 1920s, and very popular especially in the 1930s, though it never quite took over from cop. In Britain, it was popular in the sixties, though it would now be regarded as dated slang.

One suggestion is that it’s a variant pronunciation of fuss, this being something that policemen are prone to do over matters that fussees may consider trifling. It’s also been said that it comes from a mispronunciation or mishearing of “Feds”, that is, federal agents, which hardly seems probable.

Yet a third suggestion has been put forward by David Dalby, a specialist in West African languages, who argues that it comes from the Wolof word fas for a horse, which was taken over in a much modified form into the American slang expression fuzzy tail for a sure bet at a horse race (not to be confused with another usage of that phrase to refer to the very lowest category of vagrant or tramp), from there to a mounted policemen, and so to police in general.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 May 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 1 May 1999.