JOHN MCWHORTER AUGUST 24, 2009
Jan Freeman’s column Sunday, subbing for William Safire, on what Ambrose Bierce--along with others--considered “bad language” a hundred years ago was a delight. Ever been self-conscious about the difference between various and several? Did you know that talented is a “vile and barbarous vocable” because there is no verb to talent?
Me either--but I did know that according to other prescriptive proscriptions back in that era, a paragraph like this one would have been considered vile and barbarous:
Let’s have a look at the first two chapters I have excerpted, where we learn about the period when the Cross-Bronx Expressway was being built from the standpoint of people who were born in East Tremont and lived there all of their lives.
First two was considered wrong unless you meant that the chapters were arranged in pairs, of which one was examining the first of them. Otherwise, if you just meant the initial two things in a sequence, you were to say two first (I’m not kidding!). And never mind was being built, which was thought of as a vulgar alternative to the “proper” was building (The bridge was building at the same time as the office building was).
All of these things look as antique and irrelevant as parlor ballads and poultice cures today, and yet we hold on to our modern words and constructions that we just “don’t like.” We often think of clarity, unaware that we are fetishizing clarity in a particular instance while letting it go in a million other places--after all, that first two and two first distinction is, after all, magnificently “clear” and yet we hardly feel slovenly in having let it go.
Then there is pure aesthetics--not “liking” the use of structure as a verb--while not minding fax, copy, view and legions of other such cases that started that way. Not to mention “logic”--Tell each student they can leave when they are finished is “wrong” because they should not be used for the singular. (Okay, but why do you say aren’t I when you would never say I are?)
Yet I am hardly immune to these visceral feelings, and if there’s one that would move me to complain openly about it--for the sake of a combination of clarity, aesthetics, and logic--it is the truly vile and barbarous use of the word troops to refer to soldiers.
Of course, a troop can also refer to a group of soldiers. However, there is also that quirky conventionalization, where one refers to a thousand troops when one means a thousand soldiers. You can get a dose of this barbarism daily in the news; as I write, here is an utterly typical example in the Times: 17,000 troops in Afghanistan.
It sounds like they’re little plastic people, or those little chits in the game of Risk. 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 jello, or some kind of freight.
Mothers do not kiss their troop goodbye as he takes off for Waziristan. One will never encounter a troop learning to use her prosthetic leg.
This usage of troops is, in essence, a matter of what linguists call diglossia--some words are largely restricted to formal language while others are largely restricted to casual speech. In languages like Arabic, diglossia is so stark that formal language--Modern Standard Arabic based on the language of the Koran--and the way all people speak casually--such as the Iraqi, Egyptian or Moroccan dialects--are different languages altogether. In English it’s a subtler affair: children vs. kids, parcel vs. bag and other things not consciously taught that we don’t usually think about.
Troops versus soldiers is the same kind of thing, and equally thoughtless in its way. However, it has a pernicious effect. 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 logical 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.
Diglossia can be a scourge, as John Cogan noted last week in decrying the opacity of health policies, another lazy outcome of a sense that how we write must be different--and less honest and clear--than how we speak. And never mind that in cases like this, the opacity is likely in part deliberate.
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--vile and barbarous, that is. Our position on any war must be based on direct consideration of the fact that we are sending human beings to Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, we do not designate the contents of a body bag as a troop.
Upon which in my ideal Anglophone sphere we would also stop calling people who have been killed casualties--equally Victorian and dishonest.