narc / nark

Surprisingly, the word nark did not get its start as a clipped form of narcotics officer. The term, in the sense of a police informer, dates to the mid-19th century. With the advent of police narcotics divisions, officers, and agents in the 1960s, the influence of the word narcotics gave rise to the narc spelling and narrowed the sense to mean a police officer who investigates drug offenses.

The word nark first appears in the 1846 edition of Swell’s Night Guide, meaning an unpleasant person:

They are the rankest narks vot ever God put guts into, or ever farted in a kickses case.

The sense of an informer had arisen by 1859 when it appears in the second edition of Ducange Anglicus’s The Vulgar Tongue:

Nark, a person who obtains information under seal of confidence, and afterwards breaks faith.

It also appears in John C. Hotten’s 1860 A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words:

Nark, a person in the pay of the police; a common informer.

By 1891 it was being used to mean a police officer. From Francis Wylde Carew’s No. 747: Being the Autobiography of a Gipsy:

If you don’t turn up my fair share, I’ll put the narks upon you. S’elp me never, I will.

The origin is uncertain. It is often asserted to be from the Romani (Gypsy) nak, meaning nose. The word nose has been English slang for an informer since the late 18th century and has been used in phrases like stick one’s nose into, meaning to interfere or intrude, since the early 17th century. There are problems however with the Romani-origin hypothesis. The phonetic shift from the Romani /o/ vowel to the /ar/ in English is unusual. Also, the sense of nak being used for a person does not exist in Romani. It could be a borrowing of a Romani word used to convey the existing English sense of nose = informer, but if this is the case one would expect the informer sense to be earlier than the unpleasant person sense.

Still despite its problems, the Romani origin is the most likely suggestion. Another possibility is that it comes from the French narquois, meaning deceitful, and also used as a noun meaning thief.

The narcotics angle begins in the 1950s when the clipped term narco began to be used for illegal drugs. From 1954 quotation published in a letter by a J. Blake in the 12 January 1971 issue of Joint:

They brought him in...a wild-eyed savage hurling accusations of homosexual orgies spiced with all manner of narco.

By 1960, narco was being used to mean a narcotics officer. From the 6 February 1960 issue of Saturday Review:

The Beat Generation has marihuana and the ritual of dodging the “narcos"—the narcotics squad.

Within a decade, narco was being further clipped to narc and conflated with the earlier sense of a police informant. From Timothy Leary’s 1966 Politics of Ecstasy:

The narcotics bureau of the Treasury Department wanted to keep all drugs illegal, to...add thousands of T-men, G-men, and narks to the payroll.

And from the 28 November 1967 Everett Herald (Washington):

The first buy I made, the peddler said “hey, man, are you a narc?”

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

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