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The English language belongs to the Germanic language family and is closely related to Dutch, particularly to Frisian. However, unlike many of the other Germanic languages, English has been influenced by and has adopted words from a number of other languages, including other Germanic languages (such as Old Norse brought to Britain by the Vikings) and Romance (i.e. Latin-based) languages (such as Old French, brought to Britain with the Norman conquest in 1066). The origins of a few English words dealing with occupations are described below.


“Janitor” and “January” share a common origin. In Latin iānus was the word for “archway, gateway, or covered passage.” It also referred to the god of doorways, gates, and beginnings in general. Thus “January,” as the month of beginnings, is named for the god.

In ancient Rome, crime was a problem and security was privatized rather than public. Thus, the homes of the wealthy were protected with strong doorways and locks. But locks could be picked, and so a slave was often chained in the foyer to protect the house. From iānus comes iānitor, meaning doorkeeper. The Latin was adopted into English as “janitor” and is first recorded in a Scots text in 1567. In the Scots usage “janitor” actually referred to a minor school official whose duties included some maintenance duties and doorkeeping. Over time, the usage of “janitor” focused more on maintenance giving us the meaning of iānus that we use today.


The origins of “journeyman” are found in the Old French jornee meaning “a day, the length of a day” and “a day’s work.” Jornee also came to mean “a day’s travel” and then “trip” leading to the English word “journey.” In the fourteenth century, “journeyman” referred to “a daily worker,” that is, someone who worked for another for daily wages. The journeyman was distinguished from the apprentice who was learning the trade and the master artisan who worked for himself.


In Anglo-Norman corouner, which comes from coroune (“crown”), described a royal judicial officer who was “the guardian of the crowns please.” The duties of the corouner involved keeping local records of legal proceedings in which the crown had jurisdiction. The corouner also raised money for the crown by funneling the property of executed criminals into the king’s treasury.

The Normans were the ruling class and did not want their deaths taken lightly. Thus, the coroner investigated any suspicious deaths among the Normans. Over time the coroner’s responsibilities increased to include all criminal proceedings. Then the coroner’s responsibilities decreased with a primary focus on death. In the United States, which does not currently have a king, the coroner’s main duties focus on the investigation of any sudden, violent, or unexplained death.


The ancient Romans were superb engineers and gained particular fame in their ability to control the flow of water. The city of Rome had the best water system in the ancient world. The Romans used lead pipes for transporting water and waste. The master craftsmen of ancient Rome plumbed pipe, soldered, installed and repaired; they worked on roofs and gutters, down to sewers and drains; in essence, everything involving supply and waste.

Roman Plumbing

Roman plumbing from Bath, England is shown above.

The English word “plumber” comes from the Old French plumier which in turn comes from the Latin plumbārius which means “a lead worker.” In Latin the word for lead is plumbum.  


Since we seem to have a lot (more than one) of TV shows about pawnshops, I thought it would be fun to include “pawnbroker” in the list of occupations.


In English “pawn” is really two different words. The older of the two words refers to a chess piece and means “footman.” The other “pawn,” and the one that concerns us here, means “pledge as security for a loan” and it comes into English from the Old French pan which means “security, pledge.” Our English word “penny” also comes from this.

“Broker” does not come from the verb “to break.” It comes from the Anglo-Norman word bocour which means “small trader.” Its origins prior to 1066 are not clear. While there are some linguists who have attempted to show a connection with Arabic (through Spanish and Portuguese) the connections are not strong.


The term “cop”, referring to a police officer, is not really based on an acronym, such as “Constable on Patrol” or “Constabulary of Police,” nor does it come from the noun “copper” referring to the buttons on a police officer’s coat. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word referring to a police officer walking a beat first appears in 1846 and comes from the verb “to cop” which means “to capture, catch, or nab.” A “copper” is “one who catches, i.e. cops, thieves.” Just as the bad guys cop the merchandise, the police cop the thieves.

The origin of the verb “to cop” is a bit more complex. It appears that it may have come into English about 1704 from the Dutch “kapen” which in turn comes from the Old Frisian “cāpia” which was used as a euphemism for “to practice piracy.”

On the other hand, there are some who feel that the verb “to cop” comes from a broad pronunciation of the Scottish “cap” which means “to seize or arrest” and which comes in turn from the Old French “caper” which means “to take” and thus is based on the Latin “capere.”

To muddy the linguistic water further, there are also some who feel that “to cop” comes from the Gypsy “cop” which means “to steal” and then there are those who argue that it actually comes from the Hebrew “cop” meaning “a hand or palm.” When a thief cops something, it is taken in the hand.

Whichever origin you prefer, it is clear that none of them really involves an acronym or a metal.

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Sat Jan 21, 2012 at 08:32 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Pink Clubhouse, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, J Town, and DKOMA.

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