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Q From Peter Williams in Winnipeg: Since you’ve included bill, copper and fuzz as names for the police, you might want your archives to include bobby. My understanding is that it derives from Robert Peel. Can you confirm?

A That’s the usual explanation for the origin of bobby. It’s a familiar form of the first name of Mr (later Sir) Robert Peel, a British Tory politician of the early part of the nineteenth century who was Prime Minister in two administrations in the 1830s and 1840s. In 1828, while he was Home Secretary, he reorganised the old London police force (the Bow Street Runners) into a more efficient service. But to start with the officers of the new force were nicknamed peelers. That name had earlier been given to members of the Irish constabulary founded by Peel when he was Secretary for Ireland between 1812 and 1818 (he was so anti-Catholic that the locals nicknamed him Orange Peel). In London, for reasons we can only guess at, the name bobby eventually won the battle for survival over peeler.

It has been suggested that bobby was actually a transferred epithet. The Victorian writer John Hotten said in his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words in 1867: “The official square-keeper, who is always armed with a cane to drive away idle and disorderly urchins, has, time out of mind, been called by said urchins Bobby the Beadle. Bobby is also an old English word for striking, or hitting, a quality not unknown to policemen”. The Oxford English Dictionary does not admit the existence of either term, though it does allow bob for a blow.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Jun. 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.
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Last modified: 5 June 1999.