Why Is A Police Officer's Baton Called a Billy Club?

kris krüg, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
kris krüg, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

For centuries, authoritarians have sought to exert control over their fellow humans in a variety of ways. When non-lethal force is desired, police have traditionally dispensed a billy club, a wood or synthetic-material bludgeon that can diminish one's enthusiasm for breaking the law. The tool has been known by other names—a nightstick, a baton, a mace, a truncheon—but billy club is a label that appears to have stuck.

So, where did the name came from? Did anyone named Billy swing one in an attempt to restore order? History offers up a couple of possible explanations.

A actor dressed as an English policeman, circa 1880.
A actor dressed as an English policeman, circa 1880.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1829, Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel formed London's first police department. Patrolling the city's streets, the officers (who were also known as "bobbies"—as in Robert's men) were armed only with a billy club, a solid stick that could be deployed in a variety of ways, not all of them harmful. The sight of officers twirling the sticks could act as a preventative measure for would-be criminals or help someone who needed assistance to spot an officer. If a patrolman needed help, the stick could be rapped on the ground or against a pipe to summon colleagues to the scene.

In a physical confrontation, the billy club could help ward off attacks or assist an officer in restraining a suspect. Used offensively, it spared the hands any damage in a striking exchange. The use of the billy club soon spread to American cities like New York and Boston. Some officers decorated their billy clubs with symbols, coats of arms, or their initials.

Old police batons on display at London's Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre.
Old police batons on display at London's Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre.
Bill Smith, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The term likely came from the slang for crowbar. A "billy club" is what burglars called their prying tool of choice. It could have also been a play on the term "bully club," which has a slightly more involved etymology across the pond.

In the early 1800s, students at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut appointed a "senior bully," or captain of the college, who was granted possession of the "bully club," a ceremonial stick that indicated their position in the hierarchy of the school. Yale lore has it that the "bully club" was named for the time a student got into a fight with a sailor and took the weapon from him. Celebrated for standing his ground against a rough man of the seas, the student's seized bully club became a school tradition.

In some areas, the billy club has taken on regional affectations. In Baltimore, police wield a long stick called an espantoon, named after the spontoons carried by members of the Roman legion. In New York City, defensive batons with a side handle dubbed PR-24s were introduced in 1999. Overall use of the clubs has declined in recent years in favor of other non-lethal weapons like Tasers and pepper spray. Advocates of the billy club say that targeting bony prominences and nerve clusters of a perpetrator is better than drawing a weapon in some situations.

No matter what name it goes by, it's likely the club will remain a fixture of law enforcement personnel for a long time to come.

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Can Soap Get Dirty?

iStock/vintagerobot
iStock/vintagerobot

When you see lovely little bars of lemon-thyme or lavender hand soaps on the rim of a sink, you know they are there to make you feel as fresh as a gardenia-scented daisy. We all know washing our hands is important, but, like washcloths and towels, can the bars of hand soap we use to clean ourselves become dirty as well?

Soaps are simply mixtures of sodium or potassium salts derived from fatty acids and alkali solutions during a process called saponification. Each soap molecule is made of a long, non-polar, hydrophobic (repelled by water) hydrocarbon chain (the "tail") capped by a polar, hydrophilic (water-soluble) "salt" head. Because soap molecules have both polar and non-polar properties, they're great emulsifiers, which means they can disperse one liquid into another.

When you wash your dirty hands with soap and water, the tails of the soap molecules are repelled by water and attracted to oils, which attract dirt. The tails cluster together and form structures called micelles, trapping the dirt and oils. The micelles are negatively charged and soluble in water, so they repel each other and remain dispersed in water—and can easily be washed away.

So, yes, soap does indeed get dirty. That's sort of how it gets your hands clean: by latching onto grease, dirt and oil more strongly than your skin does. Of course, when you're using soap, you're washing all those loose, dirt-trapping, dirty soap molecules away, but a bar of soap sitting on the bathroom counter or liquid soap in a bottle can also be contaminated with microorganisms.

This doesn't seem to be much of a problem, though. In the few studies that have been done on the matter, test subjects were given bars of soap laden with E. coli and other bacteria and instructed to wash up. None of the studies found any evidence of bacteria transfer from the soap to the subjects' hands. (It should be noted that two of these studies were conducted by Procter & Gamble and the Dial Corp., though no contradictory evidence has been found.)

Dirty soap can't clean itself, though. A contaminated bar of soap gets cleaned via the same mechanical action that helps clean you up when you wash your hands: good ol' fashioned scrubbing. The friction from rubbing your hands against the soap, as well as the flushing action of running water, removes any harmful microorganisms from both your hands and the soap and sends them down the drain.

This story was updated in 2019.

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