The original spelling of the phrase is "a real trouper," but more and more people are using the "real trooper" spelling—so much so that it has surpassed the original spelling in a corpus of text from published books.
After the recent segment about why the word “troop” can refer to one person or a group of people, a listener named Michael asked whether it’s possible that since a trooper is another name for a soldier that the singular use of “troop" for one soldier came from shortening the word “trooper” to “troop.”
Is Singular ‘Troop’ Short for ‘Trooper’?
The first use of “troop” as a word to refer to just one soldier came hundreds of years after people started calling units of soldiers “troops,” and Michael’s instincts are right. The Oxford English Dictionary entry for “troop” as a singular noun says that in some cases it is “perhaps [an] abbreviation of ‘trooper.’”
‘Trooper’ Versus ‘Trouper’
This also brings us to a related topic: the difference between “trooper” and “trouper.” Both words came into English come from French words for “a company or a band of people,” but they came into English at different times, and they developed different meanings in English.
All around the English-speaking world, troopers are police or military men and women on horseback, and in the United States, “trooper” also refers to state police officers. For example, you’d say,
I got a ticket from a state trooper last week.
Moving on to the other spelling, an acting company is a troupe. You could say,
The troupe is scheduled to perform in Paris next week.
An actor in such a group is called a trouper, and when someone powers through an illness or a tough role, he or she is sometimes called a “real trouper.”
‘A Real Trouper’ or ‘A Real Trooper’?
The original phrase about someone persevering despite adversity came from the theater, and until about 1970 everyone agreed that the only correct spelling was “a real trouper.” But then “real trooper” started showing up in published books more and more often until it surpassed the other spelling in the late ‘90s. The change is more dramatic in American English, but it’s also happening in British English.
Comparing the entry for “trouper” in the last two editions of Bryan Garner’s English Usage books highlights the change. The 2009 edition calls the O-O-P-E-R spelling “invariably inferior” and pegs its use in place of the “correct” spelling as stage 2 in his language change index, which he says means “widely shunned” and is roughly equivalent to audible belching. But the newer 2016 edition upgrades the trend to stage 3, which means it’s now widespread but avoided in careful usage. Garner calls his stage 3 roughly equivalent to overloud talking.
Your Quick and Dirty Tip: If you want to be correct, remember that a real trouper is like an member of an acting group who goes on stage with a fever, and spell “trouper” with a U. But keeping that spelling intact is probably a losing battle in the long run because if you saw my TED talk, you know that in English, people essentially vote for spelling and usage, and people seem to be voting for the other spelling.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”