The “bravest” phrase had already been used for decades to honor distinguished military officers. In the early 19th century, Napoleon called Marshal Michel Ney “le plus brave des braves,” a sentiment that soon thereafter appeared in French odes to medieval knights. In a letter dated Sept. 7, 1862, Winfield Scott, the Union general, referred to the late Gen. Philip Kearny as “the bravest among the brave.”
Lyrics from an 1886 musical about the life of a firefighter, Charles McCarthy’s “One of the Bravest,” echoed the idea of a firefighter as a soldier:
“The battle field may have its charms,
For those who fame desire,
Go count the famous battles won,
By those who fight with ‘fire.’”
Barry Popik, an etymologist who has compiled many early mentions of these terms, believes the nickname had taken root by this time. “Once a nickname has made a title, it’s usually established,” he wrote in an email.
The Police Department’s slogan also came from a phrase with military origins: “the finest police force on the planet,” an adaptation of Gen. Joseph Hooker’s 1863 claim that the Union forces were “the finest army on the planet.”
A similar phrase referring to police officers appeared in The Times in 1865. The police chief George Washington Matsell promoted the nickname in the early 1870s, Mr. Popik wrote; the 1882 play “One of the Finest” cemented the label, which was condensed to “New York’s Finest” by 1889.
Common use of the monikers for sanitation workers and correction officers came into use much later, though it is hard to pin down exactly when.
“New York’s Strongest,” for example, was said to have been coined for a Sanitation Department football team in the late 1970s. The department tried to popularize the nickname in the 1980s to fight low morale among its workers.
In 1996, Worth Street, where the headquarters of the department sits, was nicknamed “Avenue of the Strongest.” A Times article on the naming noted that officers in the Correction Department had begun referring to themselves as “New York’s Boldest.”
Also in that article, a language expert shared his belief that the “Strongest” motto was “Johnny-come-lately, a wannabe nickname” modeled after that of the police.
Mr. Popik agrees. The more recent sobriquets are “deliberate attempts to get a piece of the New York’s Finest/New York’s Bravest action,” he wrote.
There are more “-est”’s out there, official or otherwise. One such superlative, referring to public-school teachers, is New York’s Brightest; it was coined by an ad agency in 2004 for an Education Department recruitment campaign.