Mind your language

The polite origins of the police

27 October 2018

9:00 AM

27 October 2018

9:00 AM

My husband, who fancies himself as something of a classicist, was delighted to see the Turkish investigators of the Khashoggi horror in Istanbul with ‘Polis’ on their T-shirts. Against the odds of Ottoman rule and the Turkish cultural initiatives of Ataturk, this Greek word for a city society, polis, still designates the guardians of civic peace.

The borrowed word was all the more striking as the police were acting in Istanbul, the name of which derived from the Greek phrase eis ten polin, to the city. Where are you going? Eis ten polin, which by the 16th century had become Istanbul. A Turkish folk etymology derives the name from Islam bol, ‘plenty of Islam’, but this has no more basis than the popular version of asparagus in English being sparrow-grass.


When Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train was published in 1932, the destination of the Orient Express (the name of the novel in the United States) was still referred to as Constantinople. Stamboul was a form favoured by French-speakers, and Constantinople in the 19th century boasted a newspaper called Le Stamboul. Stambouline dress, as worn by Ottoman officials, was characterised by a black frock coat. It went with a fez, once the symbol of modernity (replacing the turban), only to be outlawed by Ataturk.

As for police, the word was for centuries connected in English with policy and political economy. In 1714, when Queen Anne appointed Commissioners of Police in Scotland, their duty was the general internal administration of the country. In Britain, the first force called police to keep law and order was the Marine Police force on the Thames in 1798, three decades before the Metropolitan or ‘New Police’ of 1829.

By a quirk of regional dialect, police in Scotland and Ireland were often called the polis, which was sometimes mistaken for a plural, and a new singular coined of polly. This 19th-century Scottish term had no connection, I think, with the mocking Polari name for constables as ‘Polly Police’.

With policemen running around Europe with a word on their uniform deriving from the polite virtues of the polis, it’s funny that in Greece police are known as Astynomia, ‘the law’ of the physical city, not of the polity.

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