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.

Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

nito100/iStock via Getty Images
nito100/iStock via Getty Images

There’s no one explanation for how Halloween costumes originated. Much like the holiday itself, the practice of dressing up is the result of a hodgepodge of traditions from around the world.

Many historians suspect that the tradition has some basis in the Celtic festival of Samhain (also called Calan Gaeaf in Wales). Celebrated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain marks the official start of winter—known to the Celts as the “dark season.” During Samhain, “the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That wasn’t a comfort to the ancient Celts, who believed their deities were prone to playing tricks on human worshippers. Many festival participants disguised themselves as animals or beasts, hoping to hide from malevolent spirits who might bring them misfortune.

Move forward a few centuries and the modern-day practice of dressing up and trick-or-treating has its roots in the European custom of “mumming and guising.” Mummers would dress up in costumes, often woven from straw, and perform plays and songs for neighbors in exchange for food. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought that tradition to North America, where it later morphed into what we now know as trick-or-treating.

Halloween costumes didn’t experience their true heyday until the mid-1900s, though. For that, you can thank New York City entrepreneurs Ben and Nat Cooper, who started a company producing pop culture-themed costumes at a low cost. Ben Cooper, Inc., found a niche in helping kids become the characters they admired from television and comic books, often purchasing merchandising rights before said characters ever became popular. Due in no small part to the Cooper family’s innovation, Halloween costumes became an accessible and even necessary part of holiday festivities.

Today, Halloween costumes are big business. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend about $3.2 billion on costumes this year (of that, about half a billion will go to costuming pets). You have to wonder what the ancient Celts would have thought about today’s Halloween costumes.

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What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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