Soldiers or Troops?
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.