This slang term for the police dates to 1924. The origin is unknown. From an article about pickpockets in the Los Angeles Times of 30 January of that year:
A “mob” can “beat a pap” to the “leather” and get away with it with the ordinary “fuzz” lookin’ on. […] A mob in the parlance of the pickpocket is a gang of three or four pickpockets working together. The “wire” or the “gun” is the man who does the actual lifting of the victim’s money. A “pap,” if he is a man, is the victim. The other men who work with the “wire” are known as the “stalls.” The pickpockets refer to policemen in general as “the fuzz.”1
While the origin is unknown, one 1931 source, Godfrey Irwin’s American Tramp and Underworld Slang, proffers the following:
Fuzz, a detective; a prison guard or turnkey. Here it is likely that “fuzz” was originally “fuss,” one hard to please or over-particular.2
Explanations that the term stems from Fuzzy Wuzzy the poetic bear or, bear, the slang term for a policeman are incorrect. This slang sense of Bear does not appear until 1975 and is a reference to the “Smokey the Bear” hats that state troopers often wear.3
1”Pickpockets Dodging City,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles), 30 Jan 1924, A3.
2Godfrey Irwin, editor, American Tramp and Underworld Slang (New York: Sears Publishing Company, 1931), 81.
3Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 114.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton