Words have more than one meaning
by Charlie Sewell
columnist
March 31, 2013 12:00 AM | 1041 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On a recent Atlanta radio talk show I heard a retired police officer reprimand the host because she used the word “cop.” The host was astonished and very apologetic saying she didn’t mean it in a negative way. She then made reference to the word COP which she thought was an acronym for “Constable On Patrol.” The word cop came into use a couple of centuries ago as a slang word meaning to catch. You can also cop a plea and plead guilty to a lesser crime, cop out and avoid your responsibility, and climb to the cop, which is a British word for crest of a hill.

There are a host of words (antagonyms) that mean the opposite of themselves. Did she clip (cut) her ear or did she clip an earring onto her ear? Was there mayhem at the jail during the riot or was our party a riot because we had so much fun?

All segments of society have their own generational lingo. The word “groove” in the 1920s meant the specific groove that a phonograph needle was placed on a record. That morphed into the word groovie in the 1960s and it meant wonderful. In the 1950s we called the television the one-eyed monster. As time passed we watched eppies (episodes) on the telly. The word “bad” meant something unfavorable until young people started using it to mean something good in the late 1980s. The Internet has brought us common slang words or acronyms like LOL (Laughing out loud) and less common jargon like YOLO (You Only Live Once).

I think of a shakedown as extortion of money but a television viewer might think of it as a police officer patting a suspect down for a weapon. That same viewer might call handcuffs “bracelets,” and know that the word “perp” is short for perpetrator. Police officers nab or catch suspects just like baseball players nab runners when they tag them out.

As directed toward a law enforcement officer, does the word “cop” have a negative or neutral meaning? I think the connotation of that word is subjective.

In 1974, I received a copy of a very complimentary letter from a woman I think was in her 80s. The letter, addressed to my then-Chief of Police, talked about the very nice young cop that came to her accident and immediately checked on her welfare and that of her grandchildren. It was a very routine accident investigation but the letter was significant, not so much for the compliment, but for the affectionate use of the word cop.

That was a defining moment in my career because I realized that words are just words. I might tell someone to kiss my foot and they laugh, but become offended if the same words were uttered by another.

Communication between humans is one of the most difficult things we do. Many words are said out of anger and often with regret. One hundred constructive words can be poisoned by just one that is ill chosen, and a person’s character lies in how they choose. Choose wisely, you don’t have to eat the words not spoken.

Charlie Sewell is the Powder Springs chief of police. His column runs occasionally in the Marietta Daily Journal.
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