Q From Rosemary Delnavine: For at least as long as Western troops have been occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, news reports have routinely misused the word troops when talking about soldiers. Am I right in thinking that “three troops were wounded” not only sounds daft but is incorrect when what is meant is “three soldiers”? “Three troopers”, yes, if they were part of a regiment that is or was mounted.
A This usage has been bugging Americans in recent years, with a lot of comment appearing on language-related sites.
The traditional position that you are likely to find in reference books is that troop is a collective term for a group of people of unspecified number (it’s from medieval Latin troppus, a flock, and is the same word as troupe for a theatrical group). You can refer to more than one troop in the sense of a set of such collections (“the jamboree was attended by several dozen scout troops”) and use troops as a generalised collective term for the forces (“the occasion was full of emotion and flag-waving as the crowds lined the streets of Morpeth to give the troops a rousing Northumbrian welcome.”).
The usage of troops that you refer to is actually not that new. For more than two centuries writers have used it for a countable number of individuals, provided the number is large and not closely specified. An early example:
This Attack is to be commanded by General Alvinzy; and the Army which he will lead to it will consist of Fifty Thousand Troops in the highest order and spirits, and confident of success.
The True Briton (London), 1 Feb. 1797.
It’s easy to find many similar instances throughout the nineteenth century, so it’s notable that the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for troop, written in the early years of the twentieth century, doesn’t include this plural countable use.
Despite this long history, many people continue to be unhappy about it. The linguist John McWhorter objected to it on National Public Radio in March 2007: “Calling 20,000 soldiers ‘20,000 troops’ depersonalizes the soldiers as individuals, and makes a massive number of living, breathing individuals sound like some kind of mass or substance, like water or Jell-O, or some kind of freight.”
He noted in particular that “This usage of troops is only possible in the plural. One cannot refer to a single soldier as a troop. ... This means that mothers do not kiss their troop goodbye as he takes off for Anbar Province. One will never encounter a troop learning to use her prosthetic leg.” It’s becoming clearer that this objection won’t survive the pressure of current usage, at least by the US media. Troop is increasingly being employed in reports for an individual member of the armed forces:
The international force in Afghanistan says three American troops have been killed by a roadside bomb in the violence-wracked south. A NATO statement says two troops died immediately after the blast Tuesday.
AP News, 7 Jul. 2010.
It came particularly to public notice in early November 2006, when Senator John Kerry made an unfortunate joke and had to apologise: “As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to any troop.”
I’m told that singular troop for an individual has been recorded in US military slang from World War Two. People who were in the services during the 1950s and 1960s confirm it was then common in the US Army (“Yo troop! Take ten troops and police up that latrine!”). Others have mentioned that it is also widely used in the Australian Defence Forces, in which it can be employed for anyone not a commissioned officer. The Oxford English Dictionary added it to the entry for troop in 1993, noting it was then chiefly military. It also records singular paratroop from 1941. This appears in a poem by John Betjeman, Invasion Exercise on the Poultry Farm, published in New Bats in Old Belfries in 1945, but from context written a year or two earlier: “She will teach that Judy girl to trifle with the heart / And go and kiss a paratroop like any common tart.”
Troop has developed into a singular and small plural count noun for several reasons. There are now many more women in the various US armed forces and this presents gender-related difficulties in finding suitable terms for individuals (serviceman does not work any longer). More significantly, it’s been difficult to find an inclusive term for a single member of the combined services — soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and so on. Serviceperson or member of the armed forces hardly trip off the tongue. The US Department of Defense has coined servicemember but that works only in bureaucratese, not in news headlines or everyday speech; warfighter is a jargon term in the military, though not in the media, and its usage is complicated by also being a trademark for a video game. Though trooper is available in theory, it’s restricted in American usage mainly to a member of the state police, and otherwise to a mounted soldier in a cavalry regiment. Warrior has been popular, within and outside the military, but has connotations that have rendered it unpopular or unsuitable for some. Combatant is almost always pejorative (“enemy combatant”). Not least, troop is usefully short for fitting into headlines.
Despite wide unhappiness about it, there’s no doubt that singular troop has become a settled part of the language of the US media (it’s still a rarity in the UK). But I agree with John McWhorter that it will be some while, if ever, before a member of the armed forces describes himself or herself as a troop, not least because mutual pride and loyalties within a service mean that specific terms such as soldier or airman will continue to take precedence.