People often ask a linguist such as myself what my favorite word is and what my least favorite word is.
Usually I don't quite know what to answer – I'm not given to liking or disliking words as such. It usually takes a sentence to get on my nerves.
Yet other people often talk about how it makes their skin crawl when people use they in the singular, such as Tell each student THEY can leave when THEY finish the test. Then others have a problem with irregardless, and so on.
Well, these days there is a word that gives me a little dose of annoyance at least once a day. It's troops – specifically, the use of that word as a stand-in for soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors.
Of course, a troop can also refer to a group of soldiers, boy or girl scouts, or a squadron. However, there is also that quirky little conventionalization, where one refers to a thousand troops when one means a thousand soldiers. Naturally, we hear that usage quite a bit these days. For example, since Friday, 15 British troops have been detained by Iran.
The problem is that this usage of troops is only possible in the plural. One cannot refer to a single soldier as a troop. This means that 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.
It's rather like the word news: there is no such thing as a "new," which is why news conveys a quickly passing blur of events leading one into the other, and also sounds slightly trivial. When something winds up "in the news," it sounds like it has taken a step down, been tatted up a bit.
And so it's almost fitting that it is in said news that masses of soldiers are typically referred to as troops. The Democrats are seeking to bring soldiers — persons — home, not troops. 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.
Using a name for soldiers that has no singular form grants us a certain cozy distance from the grievous reality of war. Meanwhile, it serves no purpose: It certainly isn't clearer than soldiers, and in fact is less clear, because one may wonder whether squadrons are meant rather than individuals.
Our national conversation about this war would be more honest if the usage of troops when one means soldiers was considered clumsy, and even rude. Our position on this war must be based on direct consideration of the fact that we are sending human beings to Iraq. After all, we do not designate the contents of a body bag as a troop.
John McWhorter is a linguist and the author of The Power of Babel.