Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Sunday, May 6, 2012
I recently started thinking about the words 'cohort' and 'cohorts', possibly even on this blog, and now of course I see them everywhere. I suppose cohorts must be part of a cohort, but I don't really think of them together. I think even I have on some rare occasion said, 'my cohorts' but it's only in reading that I see a cohort of _____ used. A cohort is some sort of group, obviously. The 'co-' must mean with, but the 'hort'? I can only guess that it is related to hours, or possibly 'orts'--those scraps of food that turn up fairly often in crossword puzzles. And something makes me think cohort is military, maybe some some segment of a squadron, or a legion.
Yeah, I'm grasping at straws here. Let's get on with it.
Man, I really was going to guess it went back to the Roman Legion, but I thought I was going to far out on a limb. But in fact the meaning of cohort does go back to that time, when a century was a hundred men, a corhort was six such centuries, and ten cohorts equaled a legion. (Although somewhat confusingly, the numbers needed to comprise these units changed over time, until a century typically had only 80 men, and so on. More detail (a little more detail than I personally really need) is here and here.) The Latin was cohors, and came to us throught that by now quite familiar route of Old French, Middle French and then English.
There are a couple of things that interest me about all this. The '-hort' is not related to hours or orts, but in fact to gardens. Think horticulture. The early sense comes from the Latin for enclosure, and sharing the hypothesized ProtoIndoEuropean root *gher, to grasp or enclose, connects it to a whole lot of other words you might not have thought had any relation, like yard, garden, and even the sense of 'to gird". The military sense was an extension of the meaning, being something like an enclosed group.
The other thing that interests me is a change of usage in English. Apparently, many critics say that a cohort would never refer to and individual, but always to this group noun. But gradually, the usage shifted, so that cohort to mean an individual person has now become the dominant usage. According to the Free Online Dictionary:
"Seventy-one percent of the Usage Panel accepts the sentence The cashiered dictator and his cohorts have all written their memoirs, while only 43 percent accepts The gangster walked into the room surrounded by his cohort."
I have to admit that I do not know what the Usage Panel is, nor whether their findings are valid. I wonder, for example, if this is more of an American usage, as Latin had a longer and more tenacious hold on British English than ours. But I think that these go along more or less with the way I hear the word used, so for now My cohorts and I will provisionally accept its pronouncements.