Q: I’m constantly bugged by hearing people on CNN or Fox talk about two troops or three troops wounded in Iraq. I always thought the word “troops” referred to a body of soldiers or a large number of soldiers, not two or three. Am I wrong?
A: You and umpteen (roughly) other WNYC listeners have e-mailed me about “trooper/trouper/troop/troops” and all the permutations.
I agree with you that the use of “troops” to refer to a small number of soldiers, sailors, marines, and so on sounds clunky, but we seem to be in the minority on this.
Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “troops” can refer to soldiers. Neither reference suggests that the number of soldiers has to be large.
Even a relatively fussy language reference like Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed.) accepts the use of the plural “troops” to mean a small number of soldiers.
“In this sense, troops refers to individual soldiers (three troops were injured in the raid), but only when the reference is plural,” the usage guide says. “That is, a single soldier, sailor, or pilot would never be termed a troop.”
Although “some may object” to using “troops” to refer to individuals, the book adds, “the usage is hardly new.” It cites an 1853 item in the New York Times reporting that “three of the Government troops were killed and five wounded.”
“Today,” Garner’s says of the usage, “it’s standard.”
Since this issue has generated such interest, here’s a summary of current usage:
(1) “Troop” (singular) means a group. It can refer to a group of soldiers, Boy or Girl Scouts, or (loosely) any collection of people or animals or things.
(2) “Troops” (plural), in the military sense, properly refers to members of the armed forces collectively or a number of individuals (as in, “Five thousand troops were deployed.”) Although many authorities now accept the use of “troops” for a small number of service members, I’d recommend being more specific. Instead of saying “Three troops were wounded,” say “Three soldiers [or marines or sailors] were wounded.”
(3) “Trooper” is commonly used to refer to a state police officer or to a soldier in a horse, armored, air cavalry or other troop.
(4) A “trouper” is a member of a performing company (theatrical, singing, or dancing); the company itself is a “troupe.” But “trouper” also means someone who is a hard worker, a good sport, a reliable person, a mensch. Nine times out of ten, when someone uses a word that sounds like “trooper,” what he means is “trouper,” as in “What a trouper,” “She’s a real trouper,” and so on.
Again, I’m talking here about current usage. Feel free to read no further.
But in case you’re interested, the English military term “troop” (16th century) comes from Middle French troupe, which comes from Old French trope, probably derived from tropeau (flock, herd).
Tropeau, in turn, comes from the Latin troppus, which may derive from the ancient Germanic sources that gave us thorp and throp, the Middle English terms for hamlet or village. Hundreds of years later, we reborrowed it from the French!
The Oxford English Dictionary says the original English meaning of the singular “troop,” from the mid-1500s, was “a body of soldiers,” and soon after that it meant “a number of persons (or things) collected together; a party, company, band.”
In 1590 it acquired a technical meaning in the military: “A subdivision of a cavalry regiment commanded by a captain, corresponding to a company of foot and a battery of artillery.”
By 1598, the plural “troops” had come to mean “armed forces collectively,” the OED says. Here’s a 1732 citation: “Certain sums of money to raise troops.” And here’s another, from 1854: “The courage displayed by our troops.”
If you’ve read this far, congratulations. You’re a real trouper!
(This item was updated on Nov. 4, 2009)
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