Q: The lead character in the comic strip "Rex Morgan, M.D." recently referred to someone as a "real trooper." That confusion seems to happen over and over again. A "troupe" is not a "troop," but I wonder if they stem from the same antecedent. — Brock Putnam, Litchfield, Connecticut
A: Lay on, Macduff! You're right on both counts. The correct term is indeed "real trouper," and "troop" and "troupe" do derive from the same word.
The Middle French word "troupe," meaning "a group of people," entered English as "troop," which came to refer specifically to a company of soldiers, police or young people, as in a "scout troop." But during the late 1700s, English adopted the original French spelling "troupe" and gave it a specific meaning: "a group of actors." So members of theater companies became known as "troupers."
Anyone who's ever been involved in a stage production, especially a traveling show, knows what troupers have to endure: collapsing sets, falling lights, missed cues. Ethel Merman memorably cataloged these calamities in the song "There's No Business Like Show Business": "The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops, the sheriff who escorts you out of town."
But dedicated actors endure these tribulations without complaint. The show must go on! That's why "real trouper" emerged during the late 1800s as a term for anyone who demonstrates plucky resilience through hardship or, more generally, anyone who is loyal and dependable.
Of course, troopers (soldiers, police) are also extremely steadfast, so, inevitably and understandably, people started spelling the term "real trooper." Google's Ngram Viewer, which charts the frequencies of words' appearances in books, shows that this alternative spelling first appeared during the Civil War but didn't gain widespread use until the 1970s. By the late 1990s, it had surpassed "real trouper" in popularity and is now used almost twice as often.
But is writing "real trooper" incorrect? Usage expert Bryan Garner describes "real trooper" as "a form that has spread to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage."
Despite Garner's concerns, it's clear that "real trooper" has permanently upstaged "real trouper." All the world's a stage, and each word has its entrances and exits, but who doesn't want to see the original spelling — "real trouper" — preserved? After all, as Merman sang, "There's no people like show people. They smile when they are low" — even when "real trouper" is misspelled.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.