Friday, 12 August 2011
Who died in Afghanistan on August 12th, 2011? According to most news reports, it was "Eight NATO troops." A few news services referred to "8 service members" or even the "7 U.S. soldiers" who, along with a single unidentified European, made up the day's casualty list.
As recently as the mid-1980's, the U.S. Marines stationed in Lebanon were popularly referred to as "our boys in Beirut." At the time it was still common to speak of a nation's military by the number of "men in uniform." But times have changed, and one can no longer assume the sex of any military service member. Thus, the emergence of the strangely plural collective "troops." One never speaks of a single "troop," although such a military designation has existed at least since the thirtieth chapter of Genesis. But the awkward term "military service member," a more politically correct way of speaking of a soldier, is most often pluralized by "troops--" although clearly eight soldiers constitute a single troop at most.
It's an axiom of linguistics that the meanings of words change over time. How it works is that the connotation of a given word changes in frequency to the point that its old usage is subsumed into its new one. Inasmuch as soldiers have long since ceased to operate in troops, the old meaning lay pretty much unused. Whenever this happens, a new meaning typically attaches to the old word, and it goes on to a new life as a component in an ever-so-slightly evolved language. It's also axiomatic that some people resist such changes, yet they happen nonetheless.
Given that English has become so standardised in the past century, I guess I'm a little surprised that it continues to change nonetheless. But it's this sort of change that is the most common and the most widespread: the recycling of an old word whose primary meaning has yielded to a newer, more politically correct usage.