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Q From Brendon Flynn and Janine Toms in Australia: We were wondering if you could explain how The Bill (as in the TV show) came to be associated with the British police force. As we enjoy a bit of grim reality every so often we watch the show, but its title has always been a source of mystery to us.

A It goes back to the term Old Bill, which has been around since the First World War. He was a cartoon character created in the early part of the war, about 1915, by the late Bruce Bairnsfather. Old Bill was a Cockney veteran soldier with a walrus moustache, the epitome of the grumbling foot-soldier. He was the one who told an unhappy raw recruit who was sheltering with him in a shell hole, “If you knows a better ’ole, go to it”. This became a famous catchphrase that was known and used well after the end of the war (I can remember it in London in the late 1940s, but this must have been right at the end of its life).

The series of cartoons was immensely popular and the name Old Bill remained in the language after the First World War as a term for a man with a large moustache. At some point it moved over to refer to the police — we’re not sure exactly when or how, but the first citations we have are dated only in the 1950s. Eric Partridge has said that it happened because many London policemen wore walrus moustaches in the inter-war years, but the evidence we have doesn’t confirm that.

The name was linked in particular to the Metropolitan Police, no doubt because the original Old Bill was a Londoner. Later, when the links with the cartoon character had vanished through passage of time, the name was shortened to Bill and later still was used as the title of the television series. Bruce Bairnsfather, by the way, went on to become the official cartoonist to the US Army in Europe between 1942–44.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Mar. 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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-bil1.htm
Last modified: 6 March 1999.