Proofreading Service - Pain in the English
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June 30, 2008

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troops vs soldiers

  • June 30, 2008, 10:53pm

I am delighted to see this discussion.
I first observed this use of the term "troop" a few years ago (around 2004). I was born in 1966 and I can definitely say that for the first 35+ years of my life, the term "troop" in common usage (not military usage) referred to a group of soldiers (or "servicemen" or "military personnel" or whatever you want to call them). The point is that it was a plural term such as "pack" or "flock." The standard dictionary definitions indeed clearly indicate that "troop" refers to a group, and not to a single person.
I understand from this discussion that "soldier" refers to Army, and not e.g. the Marines. That is a fair distinction in military lingo, but it does not address the issue of the general usage of the term "troop" for a couple of reasons. First, even if "soldier" is not the correct term for a singular fighting person, then there should be another appropriate term, such as "serviceman" or whatever we want to call him or her. Second, the military usage of the terminology is somewhat of a Red Herring. Within a given profession, terms often have a different meaning, which is distinct from the common usage of the term by the general population. For example, I am a lawyer, and to me the term "complaint" has a very specific meaning within the Rules of Civil Procedure. However, I understand that to most people, the term "complaint" is a generic term that is very different from my technical use of that term. A layperson will often refer to a "fender, " whereas a person who works in a body shop might more precisely call it a "quarter panel." Hence, if the masses and the media refer to all fighting personnel as "soldiers," I do not think that presents a problem, even if it is not the terminology used among the branches of the armed forces. (Our language is already rife with ambiguity and nuance; a little more won't kill anybody.)
I do, however, also wonder about the PC-ness of this, and I have wondered whether this was orchestrated by the government and/or media. When I first heard of "four troops being killed," I thought they meant many more than four people, but rather perhaps four troops of 20 soldiers each. In this sense, the death of a "troop" is worse than the death of one "soldier." On the other hand, some have suggested that "troop" is more generic and impersonal than "soldier."
(Of course, "troop" may simply be a shorter way to say "trooper," which was originally used in the military, and then leaked out to the press and politicians etc.)
In the end, I do think that the term "troop" has been altered by the media over the past few years, and that we would be better if we could turn back the clock on this term, but the genie is probably out the bottle, and we are probably now stuck with the term "troop" either being ambiguous, or losing its original meaning altogether.