The Grammarphobia Blog

Cohort in crime?

A: One contemporary phrase that bothers me is “cohort in crime.” I maintain that “cohort” is a Latin noun describing a Roman military unit of 300 to 600 men, rather than a single individual who is an associate of a criminal. What do you think?

Q: “Cohort” has undergone quite a change over the years. In the military parlance of Caesar’s time, a “century” (centuria in Latin) was a unit of 100 Roman soldiers, commanded by a “centurion.” Six centuries, or 600 soldiers (the exact numbers vary at different times in antiquity), constituted a “cohort” (cohors in Latin), and 100 cohorts, or 6,000 men, were a “legion” (from the Latin verb legere, to gather). So “century,” “cohort,” and “legion” corresponded roughly to our modern “company,” “battalion,” and “regiment” (our regiments are not so large).

But in English, “cohort” has pretty much lost its military meaning and gone civilian. It’s used loosely to mean either a group or an individual.

The first definition for “cohort” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is a group or band of people, and the second definition is a companion or an associate. In a “Usage Note” following the entry, however, American Heritage says “the use of cohort to refer to an individual rather than to a group has become very common and is now in fact the dominant usage.”

It should be noted that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has as its first definition “one of ten divisions of an ancient Roman legion.” But M-W lists definitions in historical order, not in the order of common usage. Not one in a thousand people would use “cohort” in this way.

M-W‘s later definitions correspond to those in use today. A “cohort” can mean either (1) a group, or (2) a companion or associate. The examples given include “a cohort of premedical students” and “a few of their … cohorts decided to form a company.”

To make a long story short, it’s not surprising that “cohort in crime” and “companion in crime” should be used interchangeably in modern times.

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