The Grammarphobia Blog

The whole troop

Q: In your language Q&A, you say, “One soldier does not a troop make.” This would have surprised the training cadre of P Company, 2nd Training Regiment, Fort Dix, NJ, in the summer of 1959, when I (a trainee) was repeatedly addressed as “troop.”

A: Yes, it’s true that “troop” is used colloquially in the military to mean an individual soldier.  And quite a few civilians use “troop” that way too.

But this meaning of the word isn’t yet in standard dictionaries, which still define the singular word “troop” in the military sense as a unit of service members.

We wrote a post about “troop” in 2006 and updated it in 2009. We’ve now checked to see whether the standard usage has changed since then, and it hasn’t.

In its military sense, the noun “troop” refers to a unit or a body of soldiers, especially an air or armored cavalry unit corresponding to an infantry company. Used in the plural, though, “troops” means soldiers or military units.

None of the standard dictionaries we checked accept the use of the singular “troop” to mean an individual service member.

But the Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for what it labels an “irregular” usage—the singular “troop,” used to mean one person.

The OED defines “troop” in this sense as “a member of a troop of soldiers (or other servicemen); a soldier, a trooper.”

This usage, Oxford says, is an “irregular” one derived from the use of “troop” as a collective plural, or “in some cases perhaps abbrev. of trooper.”  It describes this as a colloquialism used “chiefly” in the military.

Here are the dictionary’s citations, which begin in the 19th century, for this colloquial meaning of “troop”:

“The monkey stowed himself away … till the same marine passed … and laid hold of him by the calf of the leg. … As the wounded ‘troop’ was not much hurt, a sort of truce was proclaimed.” (From an 1832 volume of a travel memoir, Fragments of Voyages and Travels, by the naval officer Basil Hall. The “troop” here is a royal marine bitten by the ship’s monkey.)

“Can you spare a bite for a front-line troop?” (From a 1947 story collection, The Gorse Blooms Pale, by the New Zealand author Dan Davin.)

“ ‘You don’t smoke dope, do you, troop?’ ‘No, no sir!’ ” (From Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, 1973.)

We discussed the etymology of “troop” in our earlier post. We’ll just mention here that the term was borrowed in the 16th century from French, which got it from troppus, late Latin for flock. (Some etymologists believe troppus in turn may have Germanic roots.) 

Getting back to your question, a trainee at Fort Dix may often be addressed as “troop,” but this usage hasn’t made the leap into civilian life as standard English—at least not yet. Stay tuned!

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