What’s a Troop?

Now that the US is withdrawing its military forces from Iraq, we’re hearing a lot about “troops” returning home. Has anyone besides me noticed that “troops” is being used in a new way, as a synonym for “soldier”?

For example, here’s an excerpt from the December 15 New York Times:

Although Thursday’s ceremony represented the official end of the war, the military still has two bases in Iraq and roughly 4,000 troops, including several hundred who attended the ceremony. At the height of the war in 2007, there were 505 bases and more than 170,000 troops.

Every dictionary I’ve checked, including the venerable Oxford English Dictionary and the brand-new 5th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, sticks to old definitions of “troop” as a military group or a Girl Scout or Boy Scout unit.

Lexicographers (the people who edit and update dictionaries) constantly scan books, magazines, and newspapers to ferret out new uses for old words. No one, however, seems to have commented on this usage of “troop.”

Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Dictionaries, by their very nature, always lag behind current usage. Changes in our language don’t go into dictionaries until they’ve been around for a while.

My hunch is that this use of “troop” will be around as long as countries keep sending soldiers into combat – a practice that, alas, shows no signs of ending.


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