The issue recently came up of police officers using “civilian” in reference to non-police. I’m among those who find the way they use it slightly offensive, because I believe it reinforces an “us vs. them” attitude that is antithetical to the proper performance of their jobs. It doesn’t help that the term is so often uttered with a sneer or an eye-roll to show exactly how the speaker feels about those who “aren’t good enough” to wear the uniform. I think police calling others “civilians” is rude, but is it incorrect at an abstract use-of-words level? Put another way, are police themselves civilians? It turns out that the answer to that is unclear. There seem to be three kinds of definitions:

  • Almost half of the definitions exclude only active military, which would mean that police are civilians.
  • Almost half of definitions exclude not only military but also police and sometimes firefighters as well, which would mean police are not civilians.
  • The small remainder of definitions define “civilian” as an expert in civil (as opposed to criminal) law. This is the most etymologically sound interpretation, but probably the least relevant either to police usage or to my objections. If one were to accept this definition, though, it would certainly shed an interesting light on police who consider themselves not to be civilians.

I guess this is the old prescriptivist vs. descriptivist debate. Should a dictionary tell us what words mean, or reflect how we use those words? In this particular case, because of where I think a police/civilian distinction leads us (call this the consequentialist position), I think dictionaries should not cave to common usage and the first definition above should remain the primary one. The militarization of police is a real problem. Police are supposed to be of the people, not an army at war against the people. I understand how, when police see what they see every day of how people can be, they can feel that their contempt is justified. Such feelings are an occupational hazard, just like doctors who start to see people as bags of malfunctioning bits, but they’re the sort of feelings that anyone truly committed to their profession would learn to resist. Any police officer who calls someone “civilian” shouldn’t take offense when “bully” comes back. That’s in the dictionary too.