|A Metropolitan Police Constable from the Cannon Row Station, circa 1960|
(photo courtesy of John Holley and Alpha Delta Plus)
Noun. Slang. Mid-20th century.
[Diminutive of male forename William.]
The police; a police officer. Also Old Bill.
The Old Bill, meaning the police, is one of the most quintessentially British examples of slang in the dictionary. Its origins, however, are a complete mystery, despite there being numerous theories as to where it might have come from (the website of the Metropolitan Police even contains an article detailing thirteen of the most common suggestions).
What's particularly pleasing about The Bill, however, is its romantic and bygone connotation - the legendary British bobby on the beat, unarmed and respected, friendly yet authoritative. Other slang terms, such as cops and the newer, rather anatopistic feds, have lost this old world romance. But then perhaps I'm just old-fashioned - it still catches me by surprise every time I go through a British airport and see police patrolling with guns, so unused am I to seeing armed officers in Britain. As the UK moves further and deeper into being a surveillance state and the threat of terrorism and extremism looms ever large, perhaps the Old Bill is becoming not just an anachronism linguistically, but an anachronistic style of policing. If that's the case, it's a very sad state of affairs indeed.