Prepare for battle, my cohorts

September 28, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

We have become depressingly familiar with the term birth cohort, as we assess the relative merits and demerits of the finally passing away baby boomers, along with Generation X and the millennials. (Good luck, kids, we've dealt you a dodgy hand.) 

The word in its original, Roman sense was a unit of six centuries, or a tenth of a legion. Those of you who studied poetry in school may recall Byron's "Destruction of Sennacherib": "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, / And his cohorts [military units] were gleaming in purple and gold."

From that, English made the word identify a group banded together, which is why it is still in use as a a marker for a generation.

But around 1950, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage explains, cohort was taking on a new sense: "companion, colleague, follower." (That sense is older than I am, for Fowler's sake, and my children think that I am antediluvian.) Like any new sense, it was promptly and thoroughly execrated by the purists, who insisted on the "group of people united in some way," as John Bremner was still thumping the tub in 1980. 

I've come to see some advantages in it. Colleague does not quite suggest the sense of personal loyalty, as in the members of an entourage. Accomplice smells of crim. cond. Follower omits  the potential for a level of equality within the group. No, cohorts for individuals within a closely knit group has its uses.And even Bryan Garner, in Garner's Modern American Usage, concedes that while it is not universally accepted, it is everywhere. 

So, my cohorts, my brave ones, shed another shibboleth. 

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