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A Real Tro(u/o)per

Here's something non-political for a change. A little while ago loree_borealis linked to a copyediting quiz. I got a perfect score -- luckily, since I earn a living as a copyeditor. But one item stuck out as worthy of further comment. The quiz asked you to find the error in the following sentence:

My hard-working nature and get-it-done attitude inspired a former boss to remark several times that I was a real trooper.

The correct answer was that it should be "a real trouper." But I think "trooper" is an "error" only in the sense of "if the person reading your resume is anal about this kind of stuff, they'll throw you on the reject pile for it." But it's quite likely that "trouper" is an error in the sense of "accurately representing the speaker's meaning."

The expression originated as an analogy to a member of an acting troupe, with their "the show must go on" ethos. But the alternate spelling is, I think, being eggcorned into acceptability. When most people who aren't usage mavens hear the expression, they interpret it as a metaphor for a military trooper. And that interpretation makes sense, since members of the military are also known for their perseverence, as they, well, "soldier on" in the face of adversity. And when such a person -- and I include myself in this group -- turns around and uses the expression at a future date, the military analogy rather than the theater one is what's in their mind. So in that sense, when I (and I assume most other people) utter that set of sounds, what I'm really saying is that someone is a "real trooper," not that they're a "real trouper." My expression just happens to sound the same as one that's spelled differently.


Blogger Alon Levy said...

I wouldn't have gotten this one, but I got all the others. In all of the others, the mistake was in word usage rather than idiom, so it was considerably easier to spot. There is no analogy under which "Peaked my interest" or "pubic defender" is correct. In contrast, idiomatic constructions - real trouper, toe the line, bad rap - have variations that could be easily eggcorned.

4:40 PM  
Blogger ogre said...

Agreed. The trouper/trooper trope works either way. In much the same way that tow/toe the line makes sense either way.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Stentor said...

ogre -- how does "tow the line" make sense?

11:12 PM  
Blogger Alon Levy said...

You're towing yourself to the party line.

12:31 AM  
Blogger ogre said...

The (false, I'm sure) etymology I heard offered was that it came from the era of canals. Barges with tow lines. Those mules doing the hard work were "towing the line."

(But seriously, we're talking about English as used and understood, and you want "sense"?)

12:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see my language murdered almost every day, but then ogre's right about the lack of sense. I think whoever wrote that quiz was barking up the wrong tree though.

5:36 AM  

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