Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Troops" - When a Good Word Goes Rogue

by Laura Caldwell

I'm an author, not an etymologist, but I truly like when people create new words or abbreviations (or even use old words in inappropriately creative ways to describe our new world). For example, I'm in full support of texting and emailing with abbreviations like ‘tmrw’ for tomorrow, and BTW for ‘by the way’, or ‘u’ for you. I recognize some people despise such ‘words,' and I get it, but I’m a time-saver more than anything. (For the record, I do, however, have a visceral negative reaction to ‘LOL.’ Too precious for me.)

I’ve been known to bastardized words myself. Much to the consternation of my law students, when I find myself perplexed I often say I’m ‘corn-fused.’ It’s something I picked up from my friend, Dustin. A silly expression, it indicates profound confusion. If my law students and I are discussing an appellate court ruling, it’s easier to me to label myself corn-fused at the wording of the opinion than to say, “I am really, really, really befuddled.”

But there is one word that’s making me nuts these days, one which everyone seems to be using incorrectly, even the President of the United States last night (and all the Republicans who responded, BTW). And no one seems to realize they're using it wrong. (Personally, I think if you shorten a word or turn a phrase into an acronym or simply mishandle a word, you should do so intentionally, otherwise people will be corn-used). But in this case, no one seems to be aware of the misuse. The word I’m referring to is troops.

The definition of a “troop” is a group of soldiers. Therefore, there will not be, as President Obama said this week, 30,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan. (That would mean that if, say, there were 10 soldiers to every troop, there would be 300,000 additional soldiers heading overseas]. When Obama says 30,000 troops are on their way, he actually means 30,000 individual soldiers.

Why does this make me so crazy? For one reason, given the strict definition of the word, it’s absolute misinformation to say that 30,000 troops are en route to Afghanistan. For another, it seems to depersonalize our men and women in the armed forces. A troop sounds so official, so powerful. Yet when you imagine a lone soldier in her bedroom, packing her bags in order to deploy the next day, it pulls the heartstrings, it’s real. As the linguist John McWhorter wrote for NPR a few years ago, “…using a name for soldiers that has no singular form grants us a certain cozy distance from the grievous reality of war.”

18 comments:

David Heinzmann said...

Laura,
You can officially blame the media!
Here's the entry from the 2009 AP Style Book, the usage bible for news media..

troop, troops, troupe: A troop, in its singular form, is a group of people, often military or animals. Troops, in the plural, means several such groups. But when the plural appears with a large number, it is understood to mean individuals: "There were an estimated 150,000 troops in Iraq." (But not: "Three troops were injured.")

Dana King said...

The thing is, he's not talking about sending 30,000 soldiers. The 30,000 will include soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen. A marine will be far more forgiving about being referred to as a "troop" than he will if called a "soldier." Them's fighting words.

Laura Caldwell said...

Hmmm, Dave, so actually it might be correct to say 'troops', depending on what you consider a large number. 30,000 definitely is that. Thanks for the education!

David Heinzmann said...

But I think your point is a good one. Its a weird rule to have and seems to have been just accepted over time as people misused it.

Dani In Chicago said...

I always thought at troop was a group of individuals too, until all the politicians started using it to describe an single person. Then I assumed I was wrong.

BTW, do you think LOL is too sweet when it stands for Lots of Love or Laughing out Loud?

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