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.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.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.