After coming across the following questions, Origin of “All right, what's all this, then?!” and Origin of “Well, well, well. What do we have here?”, my curiosity was piqued to try and discover the origins of "it's a fair cop".

According to the Urban Dictionary, it's

a phrase roughly meaning "Eh, I guess it's fair."

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines "it's a fair cop" as

British English spoken used humorously when someone has discovered that you have done something wrong and you want to admit it


British English used humorously to admit that you should not be doing something that someone has caught you doing

• It's a fair cop - honest, officer!

• And criminals are warned that from then, they won't even have time to tell police it's a fair cop.

• Do you want me to say that it's a fair cop or something?

TV Tropes says

In any given Crime and Punishment Series or film, the chances of encountering a Fair Cop are high.

A Fair Cop is any police officer who is ridiculously attractive, ridiculously young, or both. This should not, however, carry with it assumptions that they are dumb. Call it the police version of Hot Scientist or, even closer, Good-Looking Privates. TV cops almost never have a mustache.

The title is a play on the British and Australian expression "It's a fair cop", said when one admits having been caught fair and square. See also Firemen Are Hot and Good-Looking Privates. Cousin to Hot Men At Work.

You are not particularly likely to see a Fair Cop in a stripper's police outfit — although you may see him or her as a Dirty Harriet, which gives a whole new meaning to the motto "To protect and to serve".

If you're looking for a fair-minded cop, you're probably looking for Reasonable Authority Figure or maybe a By-the-Book Cop (who usually fits).

From a Q&A on worldwide words discussing the phrase.

Q: ... In one of the Monty Python movies, as a woman falsely accused of being a witch is being carted off to her destiny she says under her breath, that’s a fair cop! ...

A: It’s a well-understood British expression, though it has been used so often in second-rate detective stories and police television series down the decades that it has long since ceased to be possible to use it seriously (the Monty Python team was playing on its clichéd status).

It comes from the same root as the term cop for a policeman. This may be from the slang verb cop, meaning to seize, originally a dialect term of northern England that by the beginning of the nineteenth century was known throughout the country. This can be followed back through French caper to Latin capere, to seize or take, from which we also get our capture. (See also the piece on cop, a policeman.) So a cop in this sense was an example of a seizure or capture.

It’s a fair cop was what the essentially good-natured thief with a typically British sense of fair play was supposed to say as his collar was fingered by the fuzz, meaning that the arrest was reasonable and that he really had done what he was accused of doing. You will understand that this is, and always has been, an entirely fictitious view of the relationship between British criminals and the police.

This answers the "cop" part, but doesn't delve into the "fair" component of the expression and the concurrent use of the words.

I understand the meanings of "fair" and "cop"! I'd like to know when and how the words came to be paired together.

Researching "fair cop" in the Online Etymology Dictionary didn't get me very far.

They provide the following

fair (adv.)

Old English fægere "beautifully," from fæger "beautiful" (see fair (adj.)). From c. 1300 as "honorably;" mid-14c. as "correctly; direct;" from 1510s as "clearly." Fair and square is from c. 1600. Fair-to-middling is from 1829, of livestock markets.

cop (n.)

"policeman," 1859, abbreviation (said to be originally thieves' slang) of earlier copper (n.2), which is attested from 1846, agent noun from cop (v.) "to capture or arrest as a prisoner." Cop-shop "police station" is attested from 1941. The children's game of cops and robbers is attested from 1900.

A user on Word Reference answering a question about a French equivalent for "It's a fair cop, guv'nor." suggests

The phrase goes back to the 19th century. Popularized by the novel Raffles, 1899.

Can anyone corroborate and expand on this?

  • 3
    collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/cop fair catch,in AmE. See the British definitions. aka, punishment
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 18:04
  • 3
    It's not that it is used in AmE. It's that it can be understood that way in AmE. The cop caught me red handed, stealing beer. He arrested me on the spot.But,hey, it was a fair catch.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 18:20
  • 4
    In AmE, you can also "cop to" something (macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/cop-to) “I copped to the fact that we should have done a better job of not being gratuitous in our representation of a barely clothed actress,” accessonline.com/articles/…
    – ColleenV
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 18:37
  • 8
    "Fair catch" is not used in this sense in AmEng, rather, that is a sporting term, mostly from (gridiron) football, indicating catching a ball while in flight. Our closest equivalent to the BrEng "fair cop" might be something like "Ya got me, there." while throwing up the hands in mock surrender.
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 19:29
  • 2
    "Fair" in this context means "just" or "justified", as in "fair play", not "nice" or "beautiful".
    – Edheldil
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 12:04

6 Answers 6


Green’s Dictionary of Slang dates its usage from the late 19th century; fair in the sense of justifiable:

[late 19C+] (orig. UK Und.):

  • a justifiable arrest; usu. in the tongue-in-cheek phr. it’s a fair cop guvnor, put the bracelets on...

  • any situation seen as fair and about which there is no complaint.

Wiktionary cites an early usage:

1891, Montagu Stephen Williams, Later Leaves: Being the Further Reminiscences of Montagu Williams, Q. C., Macmillan and Co.:

  • "Several other witnesses gave corroborative evidence, and a constable who helped to arrest the prisoners stated that one of them, on being taken into custody, said: 'Ah, well, this is a fair cop.'"

Little Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins notes that:

The verb cop meaning to catch comes from northern English dialect cap meaning to capture or arrest. This probably goes back to Latin capere to take or seize. So a copper was a catcher which is why it became an informal term for a police officer in the 1840s.

Apprehended villains have been saying It’s a fair cop! since the 1880s

  • 2
    Yes,in AmE a fair catch. In other words, the cops catching them was fair.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 18:05
  • 3
    Hence someone who cops people, is a copper.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 12:06
  • 4
    @Lambie we definitely don't use "a fair catch" in America the same way that "a fair cop" is used in British English. I think your posting that here will confuse folks who are not familiar with American English idioms. We don't have a good synonym for this phrase, hence when I heard it as a child in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I was confused for years to come.
    – Joshu's Mu
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 12:26
  • @philipxy That's right, the catching was fair: I said: "the cops catching them was fair. I said nothing about cop meaning copper, did I? Reading can be problematical.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 12:34
  • 1
    @Lambie perhaps a possessive: "the cops' catching them was fair" would be clearer without changing the meaning. Of course the other way to read it really requires "were fair".
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 14:11

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "cop" in this sense means capture.

My own search of newspapers found a really early example in multiple London newspapers, the earliest version of the story being published on September 1, 1875. A guy was caught breaking and entering and (after a chase) he was brought to the station where he said:

Well, you have made a fair cop (capture) and I'll act square.

(Here's a screenshot of the article, specifically from The Sunday Times on Sunday, September 5, 1875.)

Another early example is in the Derby Mercury (Derby, England), Wednesday, March 27, 1878, which describes a guy who put two fouls in his pockets and got caught. The article says he called it a "fair cop" (here's a screenshot of the article).

The OED also lists an early example for "good cop":

What do you want to search me for? You have got a good cop.
Sessions Paper, 1884

Here's another early example for "fair cop":

Prisoner remarked it was ‘a fair cop’.
The Standard, 1889

The noun came from the verb:

If the Cruel Stork should come, He'd Tyrannize and Cop up some [Frogs].
The Dissenting Hypocrite, 1704

As for where the verb cop came from, the OED thinks it's "[p]erhaps a broad pronunciation of cap" (a now-obsolete verb meaning "arrest" that itself is "apparently [from] Old French cape-r [meaning] to seize").


One early instance of the expression appears in "The Easy Chair," in the [Echuca, Victoria & Moama, New South Wales] Riverine Herald (June 11, 1890):

"It is a fair cop," admitted Mr John Rose, when discovered in company with a jemmy in a house to which he had not been invited ; "but I did not mean to get into the house ; I meant the pawnshop next door." There is an engaging frankness about the explanation.

The British Newspaper Archive turns up an even earlier match—from "Alleged Breach of the Licensing Act at Darlington," in the Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough [Yorkshire] (October 4, 1881) [combined snippets; the paragraph breaks shown are conjectural and almost certainly inaccurate]:

Inspector Scott narrated the facts of the case; and evidence was given by P.C. Ferguson to the effect that on the morning of the day named, about ten minutes to ten, he saw some men loitering about the house. Suspecting something wrong, witness entered the house, and found a man with a pot of beer before him. Mrs Peacock came to the bar whilst witness was there, and when she saw him struck the pot of beer off the counter. The man remarked that there was no use telling a lie about it ; and when witness remarked that it was a fair cop Mrs Peacock appeared very much flurried.

The defence was a total denial that the liquor in the pot was beer. Mrs Peacock deposed that the man who was alleged to have been drinking beer went in her husband's house and asked her for a pint of beer. Mrs Peacock said, Not likely, and the man then asked her for a drink of water, which she gave him. In answer to Inspector Scott, witness denied that the man gave her any money. It was true that Ferguson said to her, This is a fair cop, and she replied, I don't see how you can call it a fair cop giving a man a drink of water. The defendant also swore that the pot contained nothing but water, and his statement was corroborated by another witness, who saw the water drawn.

Eventually, however, the Bench ordered an adjournment of the case, in order to secure the attendance of a witness whose evidence the police and the defence were anxious to obtain.

In each instance, the phrase "It's a fair cop" seems to mean "It is a clear case of catching [someone] in the act of doing something illegal."



The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English

it’s a fair cop used of a good or legal arrest; in later use, as a jocular admission of anything trivial UK, 1891


an arrest UK, 1844 Especially familiar in the phrase IT’S A FAIR COP

Above are a couple of citations showing early use of the phrase, without 'guv'nor.


I think the answer is almost exactly in the etymology you quoted from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

fair (adv.)

Old English fægere "beautifully," from fæger "beautiful" (see fair (adj.)). From c. 1300 as "honorably;" mid-14c. as "correctly; direct;" from 1510s as "clearly." Fair and square is from c. 1600. Fair-to-middling is from 1829, of livestock markets.

cop (n.)

"policeman," 1859, abbreviation (said to be originally thieves' slang) of earlier copper (n.2), which is attested from 1846, agent noun from cop (v.) "to capture or arrest as a prisoner." Cop-shop "police station" is attested from 1941. The children's game of cops and robbers is attested from 1900.

The sense of "fair" meant is "honourably, correctly".

"Cop" in the phrase "a fair cop" is a noun related to the verb "cop" quoted above. But here it's a noun meaning the act of "copping", rather than meaning "someone who cops" by going from "to cop" to "copper" and then abbreviating back to "cop". It's the same as the way you can have "a walk", "a run", "a punch", "a murder", etc, only we don't really use "cop" as an independent verb anymore.


The etymology is simple enough but there's no reference to WHY it was used. My understanding is that it was an expression used by petty criminals for whom arrest was an occupational hazard to be navigated with the minimum of harm to themselves. It indicated that there would be no attempt to resist arrest and that, therefore, there was no need to use violence against them. An alternative was, "I'll come quietly."

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