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Rozzer

Q From Andrew: Too much Top Gear [a BBC television series on motoring] makes my mind wander. I was wondering about the origin of the word rozzers for the police, which is the one the presenters always use and which I’ve not heard elsewhere. Any thoughts?

A Off the top of my head, I would have said that rozzer is rather out of fashion as a British slang term for the police and that the Top Gear use of it was affected. But I find that rozzer does still have quite a wide currency, at least in newspapers, mostly in a mildly deprecatory way:

The rozzers will lose money if they fail their fitness tests — a drop in salary of £3,000 a year has been suggested.

Sunday Times, 18 Mar. 2012.

It may be best known outside the UK in the sentence “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.” Thereby hangs a tale. Many people came across it as a nonsense phrase in Mad magazine in the 1950s. It has since become something of an online catchphrase. The source is the British writer Margery Allingham, in her detective novel of 1938, The Fashion in Shrouds. The line may be translated as “It’s foolish to bribe a policeman with counterfeit money”, a sentiment as true today as it was then. All the significant words in the sentence were British slang of the period: crackers derives from cracked, in the sense of a damaged brain; dropsy is from drop, as in drop a bribe; snide is originally US slang from the 1850s for fake money, which may be from the German verbs schneiden, to cut, or aufschneiden, which can mean to boast, brag or show off (the standard modern English sense of snide, slyly mocking, derives from the slang term).

The current UK youth favourite term for the police is The Feds, though filth, pigs and others are still current. Older ones include coppers, the Bill, Woodentops (from a 1950s children’s TV programme), Plods and the Northern English scuffers. Slang terms for police go back a long way, at least to Shakespeare’s bluebottles, from the colour of watchmen’s uniforms. Peeler derives from the name of the founder of the Metropolitan Police in 1828, Sir Robert Peel (as does bobby). From the middle of the nineteenth century, esclop was in fashion, this being back slang for police, though it was usually pronounced (and often spelled) as slop.

Rozzer is easily the most mysterious of the set and one of the oldest still in use — it began to be recorded in the late 1880s. This is the earliest that the Oxford English Dictionary knows of:

Up walks a rozzer and buckles me tight.

Sporting Times, 26 May 1888.

An early suggestion held it was a variation on Robert, again from Sir Robert Peel. Others have unsatisfactorily found a connection to French criminal slang for a policeman, roussin or rousse, literally a redhead (from roux), considered to be a despised or marginalised individual. A common supposition is that it comes from Hebrew khazeer or Yiddish chazer, a pig, but this is almost certainly a guess derived from the 1960s slang term. Yet another candidate is the Romany ruzalō, strong. Some point to roosher, contemporary with rozzer, which is listed in Farmer and Henley’s Slang and its Analogues of 1903, but that merely transfers the problem to another word of which we know nothing.

None of these have any direct evidence to support them. Once again, it’s “origin unknown”, I’m afraid.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Apr. 2012

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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: 14 April 2012.