Gendarmes et policiers

Yesterday there was some discussion of the police at the French Conversation Group – one of the members is a former policeman. We use the word policier, but later I remembered that another French word for policeman is gendarme, and it suddenly dawned on me that gendarme probably comes from gens d’armes (armed man). I checked this today and it’s right. It’s not something I’ve really thought about before, but when I did think about it, it seemed so obvious. Do you find that with words sometimes?

According to Reverso, French country police officers are called les gendarmes, but those in towns are called les agents de police or les policiers. A community police officer is un îlotier and a traffic police officer is un agent de la circulation.

According to the OED and the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word police comes from the Middle French police (public order, administration, government), from the Latin polītīa (citizenship, political organization, government), which is also the root of policy, politics, politican, etc. and comes from the Ancient Greek πολιτεία (politeia – citizenship, government, administration) from πολίτης (polites – citizen) from πολίς (polis – city, state), from the Proto-Indo-European *p(o)lH- (enclosed space, often on high ground).

5 thoughts on “Gendarmes et policiers

  1. I do find that with words sometimes when I learn the etymology! It’s so irritating, you learn where the word came from and it’s a big “well, of course!” moment where you feel stupid for not having noticed it before.

    This isn’t a great example (because it’s not that obvious upon initial examination of the word), but the only one I can think of right now in Spanish is the word “vuecencia”, which means “your excellency” in reference to royalty…think about it, particularly look at the meaning and determine how you would say “your excellency” in Spanish if you didn’t know that word…got it?

    “Vuecencia” is simply a contraction of “vuestra excelencia”! It seems obvious once you’ve been told, but if you haven’t been and you’re asked to figure out how they came up with that, then…well, then you sit there scrunching up your face feeling stupid while you try to figure it out, haha.


  2. I definitely find that happening too.

    So, a gendarme is a man-at-arms?

    We have a similar split in police terms in the US– city police forces have officers, but county police (the ones you’re more likely to meet in rural areas) are sheriff’s deputies (or just “deputies”).

    How we even have sheriffs when “shire” was never in use in the US, I’m not sure.

  3. I just had that kind of a moment when reading Petréa Mitchell’s comment. I have never realized the word sheriff originally meant a “representative of royal authority in a shire”, like the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us.

  4. In Canada, the “gendarmerie royale” is called “police montée” or in English “the mounted police”. I don’t know how it works in other countries but the fact that in France the gendarmerie works in rural areas while the police is dedicated to towns and cities is artificial, just a matter og organisation at a given time. Everybody including the policiers themselves use the word “flics” and sometimes “poulets” (old fashioned). Gendarmes are called “pandores” which they don’t like, being military. Flics are supposed to be sharp and astute, while pandores are said to be silly. But it’s a cliché.

  5. It’s true that French country police officers are mostly “gendarmes”, and those in towns are mostly “policiers”, but the real difference is that “policiers” are civilians, while “gendarmes” are military.

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