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So I’ve been watching a lot of Australian crime dramas over the past couple of years, and one slang term always piqued my interest: “Jacks”, Aussie slang for police officers, as in “ever since the bank robbery, the Jacks have been watching me nonstop”. I wondered where it came from. Did early Australian police officers wear badges with prominent Union Jacks on them, maybe? Or did they represent British authority, as embodied by the Union Jack?

Nope – as always, the answer is far more complicated.

It all goes back to the Middle Ages, specifically France. Cavalrymen of noble birth were known as gens d’armes, which literally translates as “men at arms”. By the early 1700s, however, the gun had made heavily-armored cavalrymen nearly obsolete. So in 1720, the cavalry was placed under the authority of the French national police force – the Maréchaussée de France – and became known as the Gendarmerie de France. During the French Revolution, both the Maréchaussée and the Gendarmerie were abolished, only to be reincarnated as a military police force (still around today) called the Gendarmerie Nationale.

Contrary to popular belief, gendarme is not the generic French term for “police officer”.  The Gendarmerie Nationale has very specific tasks:

– to provide police services in areas outside the jurisdiction of the Police Nationale. This mostly includes rural areas, towns of less than 20,000 people and areas that cross multiple jurisdictions (like lakes and rivers). In this sense, they’re roughly analogous to county police in the United States that patrol areas outside city limits.

– Certain criminal investigations under judicial supervision.

– to provide all security at airports and military bases, and to conduct all investigations related to the military.

– to dress up in fancy costumes and participate in ceremonies involving foreign heads of state (much like the Coldstream Guards and their funny bear hats in the UK).

– to provide for crowd control.

– to provide all para-military (SWAT) services in France.

Sooooo… what does any of this have to do with Australian slang? Well, for a time in the late 1800s it was fashionable for seedy British types to call the police “John Darmes” in an obvious riff on gendarmes. Over time, “John Darme” became “John”, and then just “Jack” (that word being in use in English since the 1700s as British slang for a common man, as in “every man Jack needs a job”).

If it sounds weird… it’s possible that “John Darme” had a brief life in the United States, too. In the early 20th century, many Americans referred to the police as “John Law”. Whether this particular “John” comes from Britain and Australia’s “John Darme” or whether it’s a home-grown usage of John meaning “an everyman” (like “John Doe” or “John Q. Public”) is up for debate.

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