Tuesday, April 27, 2004

A Troop of One

This was the headline on the front page of the Columbus Dispatch today:
(1) Blast kills 2 U.S. troops.
The names of the two soldiers were not given, but before I get to my linguistic point, let me say that the families of these soldiers have my sympathy, and all the troops have my respect and appreciation for the dangerous job they’re doing on my behalf.

Now about this headline talking about "2 troops": The definition I had for troop for many years was essentially this one (definition 1a in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary): “a group of soldiers.” In high school, I gradually began to realize that this definition was not sufficient to let me understand some of the sentences I was hearing or reading with the word troops in them. During my U.S. history class in 9th grade, I remember hearing about how President Kennedy had sent some number of troops (I don’t remember the number, but say 50,000) into Vietnam, and wondering, “OK, so how many people does that translate to? 50,000 times…what? Fifty soldiers per troop? A hundred?” The textbook never made it clear. By about halfway through college, it was finally dawning on me that troops could also (and usually did) mean just "members of the armed forces," so 50,00 troops simply meant 50,00 soldiers.

I see that this definition has been around long enough that it is definition 1c in the same dictionary quoted above: “armed forces: SOLDIERS – usu. used in pl.” The last four words are the kicker: “usually used in plural.” Ye-e-e-es, exactly. So on the one hand:
(2) 1 troop = X soldiers, where X > 1 (and probably a 2- or 3-digit number)
But on the other hand:
(3) 50,000 troops = 50,000 soldiers
Dividing both sides of equation (3) by 50,000, we get:
(4) 1 troop = 1 soldier
Now clearly that can’t be right, can it? Somewhere between 1 and 50,000, there must be some number N such that (N-1) troops means some number of soldiers greater than N-1, and N troops means N soldiers. For years, I’ve been wondering what this number is, lowering it now and again as I come across other examples of lower and lower numbers of troops. And now that I’ve learned that 2 troops can mean 2 people, it looks like I’ve reached the limit.

Or have I? I’ve just done a Google search for the phrase “one troop,” and found at least one attestation in which 1 troop = 1 soldier:
One troop was shot in the leg this morning in a TERRORISM CRACKDOWN inspired by DONALD RUMSFIELD and FOX NEWS CHANNEL.
I found plenty of examples in which troop referred to a group of people (most of them boy scouts or girl scouts), and some in which the ambiguity really causes confusion. In this one, I just couldn’t tell whether the one troop and the other troop consisted of one person each, or more than one person each, or a combination:
During further attacks on the strongpoint, one troop engaged enemy from the south, enabling the other troop to cross the wire and the minefield. After a brief encounter one troop entered the strongpoint and the enemy surrendered.
And looking further in my Google search, I see my point has been anticipated by columnist Debra Lo Guercio, in a funny piece with a much more prescriptive slant, here.

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