Soldiers or Troops?

By Maeve Maddox

troop: “body of soldiers,” Old French trope, Middle French troupe. Latin troppus “flock”

Anuschka Krysiak writes:

I’ve noticed that journalists are now using the word “troop” in place of “soldier.”

She illustrates the usage with a headline in the Brisbane (Australia) Times:

Eight US troops die in one of worst Afghan battles

She goes on to ask

How does a plural word like “troop” become singular?  

A Google search indicates that quite a few people are annoyed by this use of the collective noun troop to stand for a single member of a troop.

Using the word troop to stand for one fighting person is a recent phenomenon. The OED added this definition in 1993:

Chiefly in sing. [Irreg. f. the collect. pl.: in some cases perh. abbrev. of TROOPER n.] A member of a troop of soldiers (or other servicemen); a soldier, a trooper. colloq. (chiefly Mil.).

This entry suggests that the usage may have begun as military jargon. I suspect that it has caught on in general usage, especially by headline writers, because it is shorter than soldier and is seen as being more inclusive and therefore more politically correct:

1. The word “soldier” ignores members of other service branches such as marines.
2. The word “men” can’t be used in a headline because military troops now include women.
3. The slightly longer word “trooper” is no longer confined to the general meaning “member of a military unit.”

For some English speakers a “trooper” is a mounted soldier. For others, a “trooper” is a policeman who patrols the roads of a U.S. state in a car.

As to “how a plural word becomes singular,” the answer has to be “by being used that way.”

However, just because a usage is widespread or has been added to a dictionary doesn’t mean that it is worth adopting.

Orwell’s objection to the use of inflated Latin words applies to the use of troop to stand for soldier.

It “falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.”

Used in the traditional sense to mean “a group of soldiers,” troop is a useful term, like “squad” or “division” or “unit.” Used singularly to stand for a single soldier, troop not only creates ambiguity, it is impersonal and dehumanizing.

As John McWorter puts it so well in his article “The Tomb of an Unknown Troop,”

Mothers do not kiss their troop goodbye as he takes off for Waziristan.

One will never encounter a troop learning to use her prosthetic leg.

Not much can be done to counter what I call “headline English.” We will go on having to puzzle out the meaning of “10,000 Troops to Afghanistan,” but in our own writing we can aim at a more thoughtful and precise use of the word.

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27 Responses to “Soldiers or Troops?”

  • Brad K.

    There is trooper, and then there is Christopher Stasheff’s science fiction/theater series, “Starship Troupers” – A Company of Stars, We Open on Venus, and A Slight Detour.

    A mix of theater history, professional theater, and touring the hinterlands – colony planets. With a smattering of political science peculiarly apropos to today’s Obama administration. But as written, the political corruption and abuse was assumed to be speculative. . .

    Troupe – [n] a company, especially of theatrical performers. [vi] To travel about as a member of a theatrical troupe [French; see *troop*]
    Trouper [n] a member of a theatrical troupe; an experienced, hard-working, and loyal actor; an experienced person.

    In Blue Steel, I believe the John Wayne movie used trooper to address and individual, troop to address the group. If John Wayne said, that settles it for me! (Mostly . . 😉

  • Steve V.

    I’d rather be called a troop than a soldier if I’m a Marine.
    I’d rather be called a troop than a soldier if I’m a sailor.
    I’d rather be called a troop than a soldier if I’m an airman.
    I’d rather be called a troop than a soldier if I’m a Coast Guardsman.
    Otherwise call me soldier.

  • Levi Montgomery

    For what it’s worth, despite the belatedness of the OED entry, I know that this usage of “troop” as a singular noun dates at least back to books that were on the market (meaning in the library) when I was in grade school in the early sixties, because it was used to describe the capacity of such things as helicopters and armored personnel carriers.

  • Tony Hearn

    My parents (UK) from their wartime experience regularly used ‘troops’ to mean ‘servicemen in a group’, e.g. The troops were on parade’, or The American troops were based at X’. It replaced ‘soldiers’ and ‘servicemen’ in everyday speech in this context, but was only used of the army. I’ve never heard the singular used of one serviceman, but, of course, in accordance with normal usage one speaks of a ‘troop train’. That said, it was ‘servicemen’ my aunt had billeted on her during the war, not ‘troops’!

  • Brian Bowman

    Service member is best. In the US, only people in the Army are soldiers. The rest are Marines, Airmen and Sailors.

  • Sharon H

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only person bothered by this usage. I grew up with boy and girl scout troops all around, but the reference was to the groups and not the individuals. This strange substitution of “troop” for “soldier” makes the request for “10,000 troops” seem like it might mean 100,000 soldiers or more…

    Brad’s “trooper/troop” explanation above makes sense to me as well as the idea that things just get shortened for convenience. This still doesn’t make me like it!

  • Levi Montgomery

    Deborah:

    That’s an interesting thought; however, I don’t find any references that make that claim. In fact, a search of .mil sites for the word “troop” shows numerous uses of the word to refer to other types of soldier besides cavalry, including several instances of the phrase “infantry troop” being used to refer to a single infantry man.

    If you have a source, I would be interested in seeing it.

  • Deborah H

    Historically, the word “troops” means specifically “cavalry” soldiers—as in mounted on horseback soldiers—as opposed to boots-on-the-ground soldiers called “the infantry.”

    In today’s modern army, the cavalry still exists, but they generally travel in helicopters and tanks not on horseback, though some traditional horse companies still exist for historical and ceremonial purposes.

    This link takes you to the 1st Cavalry history page, which is a good place to learn about the U.S. Army Cavalry.

    The Army is forgiving to ordinary citizens who don’t know the differences in infantry, airborne and cavalry, but if you are a professional writer/reporter/journalist and are ignorant of these distinctions—woe unto you.

    It’s never incorrect to use the all-purpose Army word “soldiers” but if you use “troopers,” you better be talking about the cavalry.

  • Maeve

    Levi,

    Re: For some English speakers a “trooper” is a mounted soldier. For others, a “trooper” is a policeman who patrols the roads of a U.S. state in a car. and Deborah’s comment

    According to the OED, In Australia a “trooper” is a mounted policeman.

    Also in the OED — the first definition given for trooper is:

    1. a. A soldier in a troop of cavalry; a horse soldier.

    It’s not marked obsolete.

    There’s also this interesting note:

    In the first establishment of Horse Regiments after the Restoration, the strength of a troop of horse was 1 Captain, 1 Lieutenant, and 60 Troopers.

  • Levi Montgomery

    “The Army is forgiving to ordinary citizens who don’t know the differences in infantry, airborne and cavalry, but if you are a professional writer/reporter/journalist and are ignorant of these distinctions—woe unto you.”

    And yet the army (as evidenced on .mil sites), uses the term regardless of these distinctions. That was my only point.

    Also bear in mind the OP, and my comments, were in regard to “troop,” not “trooper.”

  • Deborah H

    I see your point, Levi. I tend to get excited when I see the word “troop” being used incorrectly, as it was in the text you cited from a military website.

    It does not surprise me that someone writing on a military website would not know every facet of Army military history, or know specifically what a trooper is. I hope the writer was corrected, even if the text was not.

    The armed services struggle in reporting, to use language that both the military and civilians recognize as meaning the same thing.

  • Deborah H

    Levi, historically the U.S. Army used the singular noun “trooper” to specifically indicate a member of the cavalry, at least through the Vietnam war (where the “troopers” traveled by helicopter).

    I tried telephoning several military resources, but today is a holiday so the answering machines took over. I can’t point you to an individual reference today, but this link goes to the Department of Defense’s history website where you can drill down search for or request more information.

    I consulted the DOD’s dictionary and the word troops is used this way: “troops (DOD) A collective term for uniformed military personnel (usually not applicable to naval personnel afloat). See also airborne troops; combat service support elements; combat support troops; service troops; tactical troops.”

    I believe we should be very careful to make the distinction between troop (one troop of soldiers), troops (more than one troop of soldiers) and a trooper (one single member of a troop).

    For me, a trooper will always be a member of the cavalry. However, to write “infantry troop” instead of infantry soldier is just plain wrong. Troop never means a single person. If I read “one troop was killed,” I would interpret that to mean “more than one soldier” had been killed—in fact, they (the whole troop) had been killed.

  • Kurt

    Various translations of Psalm 18:29 leave the usage ambivalent “By Thee I can leap over/go against a troop…,” but one contemporary translation reads “You help me defeat armies.” The variety suggests that the original leans toward the plural.

  • Herrin

    Yeah George Carlin has a great part of one of his shows where he talks about the de-humanizing that happens when words are changed. For example he tracks the movement form “Shell Shock” through to “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. Look out for him on YouTube.

    Thanks for a great article that shows just how powerful words are within our culture.

  • Maureen

    The latest military word is “warfighter” (not sure yet how I feel about that one). But I also hate the use of troop to mean an individual, in part because it is most often used in reports of casualties in war zones. The quotes from Orwell and John McWorter are right on. The bottom line on troop is political, not semantic or grammatical. Headline writers and news programs diminish the humanity of our brave men and women fighting throughout the world when they refuse to report that “X number of men and women died today in {insert any number of regions].”

  • Keith

    I’m glad I’m not the only one confused by this!

  • Glen

    To update this discussion, I’ve noticed that the word “servicemen” is now used in place of “soldiers”. When did this happen & why? Doublespeak to make war sound less war-like?

  • Deborah H

    Glen, I don’t think it is doublespeak, but a collective noun that could include soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen. Writing or saying “servicemen” or “military personnel” covers them all. In some of the war zones, the different services occasionally overlap.

    It would be interesting to go back and read news accounts from World War II, to see how the war correspondents described the men. I suspect the correspondents were quite specific.

  • Phil Dragonetti

    Quotation from todays’ article:
    ” Used in the traditional sense to mean “a group of soldiers,” troop is a useful term, like “squad” or “division” or “unit.” Used singularly to stand for a single soldier, troop not only creates ambiguity, it is impersonal and dehumanizing.”

    This is the reason it is used by the military reporting on how many young men and women had been killed that day. It is like using the word “casualties” to described those killed. It is also like the world “collateral damage”, used in a way that tries to take you attention away from the fact that decent human beings were killed by the military.

    Decent journalists should refuse to collaborate with the military by using those cover-up words, and should use words. Why do journalists do that???

  • Rusty Van Patten

    I notice that the word “unit” is becoming another word for “troop” meaning one military person. We hear from the generals and others being interviewed on TV such statements as, “We will, of course, experience some unit loss in the operation.” The interviewer then interupts the thought with “You expect to lose a few people , is that correct?”

    “Well, they’re volunteers,you undertand, each one knows his individual mission and the dangers involved. ”

    “How many units were lost in Iraq?”

    “The number isn’t complete, yet, but there were a lot.”

  • K.C.

    I’ve often been bothered that people seem to simply accept the strange use of this term over the last few years. Dragonetti’s conclusion is the cause I assume to be behind the gradual adoption of this word to mean ‘soldier’. It’s being used to soften the blow of death reports and is carried over to other mentions.

    I understand there are some occasions where softening is appropriate, but we should generally refer to them as human individuals.

  • Anne Anson

    I have been driven nuts by this for a long time. but this is the first time I checked to see if others are also on the brink about it.

    I just can’t understand journalists carrying this forward.
    I just want the to stop it..

    Yesterday if possible.

  • Gary

    Clearly, to me anyway, when speaking about one member of the troops, it is a trooper. I don’t care if states use this term for their highway patrolmen as well. Example: Two troopers were killed in Afghanistan today.

  • Bobbi

    Good to see that I am not the only one puzzled by the use of the word troop to mean a singular person. It’s an example of popular misuse causing a plural word to also indicate a singular. No matter how it started and for what reasons, it’s incorrect usage and makes what the speaker is saying unclear, at least to me. Now I need to decide anytime I hear the word, “troops” whether the speaker is referring to a group of individuals or a group of groups. Math may be involved. I don’t want to have to figure out how many people are in 1752 troops if in this case the word refers to 1752 groups of people. Would “service people” or “persons in the armed forces” be just too many words to say or too clearly state the fact that we are talking about human beings?

  • Rick Allen

    Using troop to mean a single person is confusing and awkward, given the common understanding for it meaning a group of military people. Above, Steve V. has written something about preferring to be called a troop than an airman or marine or Coast Guardsman. Well, in my experience, your response is fictitious… I have spoken with service people from different branches and they never refer to themselves as a troop and they dislike that usage very much. Is that writer Steve V. suggesting that he would refer to his courageous son serving overseas saying. “My son is a troop flying fighter aircraft over Afghanistan.” or “My Son is a troop serving in Iran” ?? Come on…!, its a lousy, faulty usage and has to be abandoned. A single person can not be a troop.

    A troop is a group of soldiers. Period. Someone did something stupid with the usage of troop a long time ago, and a lot of mindless boneheads followed suit. And after 30 years it still sounds ridiculous and awkward and an insult to English language. All the news outlets need to start fixing the error, and giving our Armed Service people the honor and respect they deserve by referring to them by their proper title, which is not troop.

  • Steve

    Interesting comments. I have found the usage of “troops” in the news to be very confusing. When it is reported that “(X) amount of troops have been deployed.” I’m left with the impression that they mean “X” amount of individuals and not “X” amount of groups of individuals. But I never quit wrap my head around it. Clarity would be a good thing. Looking up the definition of “troop” I have found some dictionaries address the strange usage and others do not.

  • Jeanne

    I presumed the use of “troop” to refer to an individual was journalistic license, adopted for brevity and/or convenience in headlines. I’ve been described as being oversensitive about such things, and I am relieved that there are others that are also annoyed by it. I consider it an incorrect usage, and I wish journalists and newscasters would abandon it, as it sounds uneducated to my ears.

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