Linguists are famous—or perhaps infamous—for our tolerant attitude toward language and how it changes. Given the widespread misconception that we are professional grammar police, we often disappoint people in saying that it is not scientifically “wrong” to say “less books” rather than “fewer books” or to say “irregardless” rather than “regardless.” Among the many reasons we view language so impartially is because attempts to detour people from speaking in ways they find natural essentially never work except superficially.
Which is why it is perhaps quixotic as well as vaguely unprofessional for me to venture that there is one common usage that I find not just irritating (in which case I would keep my complaint to myself) but almost unethical. That is how we use the word troops.
In the news media, troops is used as a stand-in for “soldiers.” Troop can refer to a group of soldiers, Boy or Girl Scouts, or a squadron. But, conventionally, 1,000 troops is also used to mean 1,000 soldiers.
We—and here I mean people generally, not just linguists—don’t use troops this way only when the numbers are especially large. The Columbus Dispatch announced one morning in 2004, “Blast Kills 2 U.S. Troops.” The basic kink is that we cannot refer to a single person as a troop. Or: It happens, every now and then, but in ways that don’t feel quite right to most of us. For example, George Bush (and, believe it or not, père, not fils) once said, “As long as I have one American troop—one man, one woman—out there, I will work closely with all those who stand up against this aggression.”
Well, okay. But most typically, we use troops to refer to soldiers in the plural when we would almost never look a soldier in the eye and refer to him as a troop (as opposed to trooper, which has a different and more specific meaning).
Is my problem with singular troops that it is newfangled, and thus some kind of random, gum-popping divergence from normalcy? That wouldn’t be the linguist way, for one, but also, for the record, this usage is not new, despite the impression many have that it started sometime around the year 2000. Try 1742, when a British politician wrote, “If we take 16,000 into our Pay, fresh Troops must be raised for that Purpose, and, I hope, I may say, without any Derogation, that 16,000 Hanoverians newly raised, are not so good as 16,000 of the Veteran Troops of any other Potentate in Europe.” This man was clearly referring to individual Hanoverians, not little squadrons of them.
So the problem must be that this usage just doesn’t make any sense? That is, if you can’t say “Get over here, troop!” then you shouldn’t be able to refer to 16,000 men as 16,000 troops? Not that, either. Language never completely makes sense, and any language has dings; it’s part of the charm.
If you can’t handle a word with no singular, then it’s time to let news go. We do not, and never did, refer to an individual story as a new. Or: The plural of anecdote is not data, as they say, but then how compelled are most of us by the technical fact that the singular of data is datum? We prefer data point. If language always has to make sense, then why are we so comfortable with fast meaning “speedy” as well as “stuck”? If rabbits are fast then how can something hold fast?
My real objection to referring to soldiers as troops is that it is unfeeling and tacky.
Calling 20,000 soldiers 20,000 troops is a distancing strategy, a euphemism in a context that demands moral clarity and honesty. Troops makes living, breathing individuals working for all of us under often grievously dangerous conditions sound like some kind of substance, like Jell-O, or some kind of freight. There is an air of the drone strike in using troops in this way; it allows us to avoid dirtying our hands with the grisly realities of military combat.
Readers often think of Mr. Orwell amid arguments such as this one, and which we must recall that he noted, of a euphemism of this sort, that “it falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up the details.” Parents do not kiss their troop goodbye. The person learning to use a prosthetic leg is not a troop, nor was she one while serving in the conflict that saddled her with such a tragic burden. The contents of a body bag are not a troop.
My proposal is that we use the words soldier, sailor, or Marine when describing members of the armed forces. A soldier is a person; a troop is something from the game of Risk.
To call soldiers troops suggests a hive of faceless bees scarcely distinguishable as individuals, spending their entire existences as cogs within a community so tightly knit and interdependent that one could analyze it as a single organism. Referring to persons as troops carefully distracts us from the individuals putting their lives on the line.
Changing terminology can only have limited influence on thought. Call a program home relief, welfare, or cash assistance and the same objections will persist. Here, however, I am suggesting not a euphemism but the abolishment of one, in favor of just telling it like it is.
Quite simply, if this nation is considering sending people to engage in violent conflict overseas, they should be referred to not with a starchy, under-considered formalism, but with terms that refer to their basic humanity.