Supporting "troops"

May 19, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

The other day I heard a radio news reader describe an attack in Afghanistan in which "a troop" was killed. Now troop is a word with a good deal of elasticity in it, but you can stretch it too far. 

A core meaning of the word in the singular is a military unit.* A cavalry troop is a group or particular detachment of soldiers.  

In the plural, it can mean the military collectively, as in the Our Troops Over There stuff one hears particularly in election years.

But it can also, despite the starchy reactions some people have, a small group. There is nothing wrong with references to several troops being wounded in an attack. It is clear from context that that refers to a number of service members rather than to a number of units. And there's nothing novel about the usage; Bryan Garner cites a New York Times reference from the Mexican War. 

In fact, it is often the preferable neutral term in these contexts, when one doesn't know the identity of the service members involved. (This will be clear to anyone who ever mistakenly referred to a group of Marines as "soldiers" and suffered the inevitable consequences.)

But troop in the singular still partakes so much of that unit sense that it jangles when used to mean an individual soldier, sailor, flier, or Marine. 

DIGRESSIONS: Military language can be as treacherous for the uninformed as religious language. I once worked with a copy editor who used GI in a headline for a story about an officer. Everyone on the desk who had served in the military, and many who hadn't, knew that a GI is an enlisted man (person) in the Army, not an officer, not a Marine, not a sailor, even though references such as GI Bill can be understood to refer to diverse members of the military. But the copy editor, a dictionary literalist, stood by his reading of Webster's New World, a reference not notable for nuance. 

You don't need to be advised, do you, that you want trouper, not trooper, for that Stakhanovite colleague who keeps going through thick and thin? It's from troupe, a theatrical company, from which the word takes on that show-must-go-on overtone. 

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