Q: In my family, a child who pushes himself or herself to keep up—on a hike, for instance—is referred to as “a real trooper.” I was just told that, correctly, the child is a “real trouper.” In other words, a good performer in a troupe, not a brave soldier in a troop. That makes sense—or does it?
A: Yes, it does indeed make sense, sort of. Here’s the story.
A “trouper” is a member of a performing company (theatrical, singing, or dancing); the company itself is a “troupe.”
The earliest citation for “trouper” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Turnover Club, William T. Hall’s 1890 collection theatrical anecdotes: “As the ‘troupers’ come into the station where I sat, they were a sorry-looking lot.”
The word “troupe,” which was borrowed from French, entered English earlier in the 1800s. The OED’s first citation is from an 1825 issue of the New York Evening Post: “The whole troupe were equally excellent.”
But getting back to your question, another meaning of “trouper” evolved in the 20th century: it can also refer to someone who’s a hard worker, a good sport, a reliable person, a mensch.
The earliest citation in the OED for this sense of the word is from the actor Peter Bull’s 1959 memoir I Know the Face, But ….
“The phrase ‘she’s a trouper’ now has an old-fashioned and faintly derogatory air and is usually bandied about when someone continues to play with a high temperature or a shattering bereavement.”
That quotation suggests, however, that the phrase was around for quite some time before Bull used it in his memoir.
And a Google search finds a lot of earlier citations. The first clear example is this comment about Babe Ruth in a 1933 issue of the Pittsburgh Press:
“This looks like a good spot for trifling encomium for Mr. Ruth, who in his mental travail has conducted himself like a real trouper.”
As you can see, the expression originated as “real trouper” and most language mavens would describe that as the proper usage.
But a recent Google search suggests that “real trooper” has virtually supplanted the “proper” usage among the people who speak English.
Here’s the scorecard: “real trooper,” 397,000 hits, versus “real trouper,” 60,400.
We’ll stick with “real trouper” for now, but in English the majority ultimately rules.
If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog item a few years ago that discussed, among other things, “trooper” vs. “trouper.”
As the posting says, “trooper” is commonly used to refer to a state police officer or to a soldier in a horse, armored, air cavalry, or other troop.
Check out our books about the English language