Monday, June 2, 2014

Help! Police!

If you find yourself in a foreign country and suddenly have a need for law enforcement, the chances are good that you’ll be understood if you say “Police!”  The similarity in words for the constabulary in languages as diverse as Finnish (poliisi), Azerbaijani (polis), Basque (poliziak), and Swahili (polisi) is remarkable.  In Germany you call the Polizei, in Spanish-speaking countries make that the policía, in Estonia it’s politsei, and when in Rome do as Romans do and ask for polizia. In Bosnia, Lithuania, and Latvia, the cops are the policija, and it Norway it’s the politiet. Even in Russia, once you transliterate the Cyrillic alphabet (полиция), you'll wind up with the politsija. 

And so it goes around the world—except for a few outliers like Hungary, where you would summon the rendőrség (if you knew how), Iceland (lögreglan), Viet Nam (công an), and Wales, where you’d have to shout yr heddlu at the top of your lungs and and hope an officer would respond. 

The word police entered English in the early sixteenth century, from the Middle French police, which stemmed from Latin politia and meant "civil administration."  Its ultimate source was the Greek politeia, meaning "citizenship or civil organization," which derived from polis, meaning "city."  By the eighteen century the French began to use police to mean the "administration of public order."

In 1798 the English formed a unit of officers to protect the port of London, and they called this the Marine Police. This was the only usage of the term to mean a body of law enforcement officers until 1830, when the British established the New Police, a more general organization of crime-fighters. Thereafter other bodies of peace-keepers began organizing as police forces, and the term police was incorporated into various languages worldwide. 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou tries to avoid the police whenever possible, and, having once dealt with him, the police try equally hard to avoid the Bard.

            The police had to work overtime
            On the day they arrested a mime.
                        Though the mime remained silent,
                        He became rather vi’lent,
            When accused of unspeakable crime.

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