English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Are the cohorts in cahoots?

Q: Can one use the word “cohorts” to describe the individuals in a “cohort”?

A: The noun “cohort” can refer either to a group or to an individual within the group, as we wrote on our blog back in 2007.

So “the gang leader and his cohorts” would be a correct usage.

As we noted in that post, the English noun “cohort” originally meant a band of soldiers. It has a long etymological history as a military term dating back to Roman times.

In Caesar’s day, a “century” (centuria in Latin) was a unit of 100 Roman soldiers, commanded by a “centurion.”

Six centuries, or 600 soldiers (the exact numbers varied at different times in antiquity), constituted a “cohort” (cohors in Latin).

And 100 cohorts, or 6,000 men, made up 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.

Some sticklers still insist, though, that “cohort” should refer only to a group because of the word’s classical origins.

However, a usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says “the use of cohort in reference to individuals has become so common, especially in the plural, as to overshadow the use in the singular to refer to a group.”

More than two-thirds of the dictionary’s usage panel accept this sentence: “The cashiered dictator and his cohorts have all written their memoirs.”

In a post a couple of years ago, we discussed a theory (though an unlikely one) that “cohort” is the source of the word “cahoots,”  as in “the thieves were in cahoots.”

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