"Popo" in Hong Kong

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Article in SCMP Magazine:

"How Hong Kong slang terms for ‘police’ have evolved over time", by Lisa Lim (9/28/19):

Back in the day, Hong Kong policemen were referred to in Cantonese as luhky ī  [sic; VHM: luk6ji1 綠衣]  (“green clothing”), for the green uniforms they had worn since the 19th century. Khaki drill became the summer uniform around 1920 while the current get-up of light-blue shirt and black trousers, worn year-round, was adopted in December 2004.

In addition to the green uniforms, headgear worn by policemen – the turbans of Sikhs and the conical bamboo hats of the Chinese – were also part of the personification.

Terms being used for the local police force these days have assumed a different hue. During the 2014 “umbrella move­ment”, pro-democracy protesters condemned officers as hākgíng (“black cops”), a tag that is being widely used in the current protests. “Black cops” alludes to another epithet involving the same colour term: hākséhwúih, which is Cantonese for “black society”, namely, the triads, implying police collusion with organised crime.

But one of the most popular slang terms for the local police today is “popo”. The word has its origins in 1980s southern California, where T-shirts bearing “PO” (“police officer”) worn by cops on bicycles would, with officers riding in pairs, spell out “POPO”. Hong Kong-raised Filipino rapper JB’s F**KTHEPOPO became a hit in June, with the phrase becoming a fixture of protest graffiti.

The word “police” – which today refers to a specific depart­ment devoted to maintaining public safety and law and order – entered English in the 1530s via the Middle French police, which came from the Latin politia (“civil administra­tion”). This came from the Greek words politeia (“the conditions and rights of a citizen or community”), politēs (“citizen”) and polis – notably, these encompass not only “city, state” but also “community, citizens”. Also note­worthy is the fact that the Greek polis is the origin of another English word: “policy” (“way of management, good government”).

For a very long list of Cantonese terms pertaining to police, see CantoDict.

As manifested in the language of the extradition bill (and now democracy) protesters, Hong Kong Cantonese has become a highly internationalized tongue.  See "Loose Romanization for Cantonese" (9/21/19).



"Hong Kong protesters messing with the characters" (7/28/19)

"Special diligence: police and security forces in China" (4/14/18) — with multiple photographs and long lists of names for different types of police

"'Suffered We Protect They'" (12/22/14)

"Pinyin in practice" (10/13/11)


[h.t. Fraser Howie]


  1. Chas Belov said,

    September 28, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

    Could luhkyī be the Yale version? Or did they actually have the space in the article? (It's behind a paywall, so I'm choosing not to check.)

  2. Neil Kubler said,

    September 28, 2019 @ 5:12 pm

    In German both "Po" and "Popo" mean "butt, fanny, bum." No doubt a coincidence…

  3. Ursa Major said,

    September 30, 2019 @ 6:21 am

    I've always assumed that popo came from a doubling of the the first syllable of 'police', which is stressed in some black American accents (something like ˈpoʊˌlis; forgive me if that's wrong, I'm not very good at IPA).

  4. Alyssa said,

    September 30, 2019 @ 11:14 am

    Yeah, the "two police officers on bikes" story sounds like an obvious false etymology to me. There's no need for a fancy story to explain "po po", it's just the first syllable of "police" repeated twice.

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