“Cohort” means a body of soldiers: a battalion or a regiment, something like that. A pure Latin word, it has been in English for hundreds of years. In Milton’s Paradise Lost God sends the archangel Michael down to expel Adam and Eve from the garden, and with him “the cohort bright/Of watchful Cherubim.”
An excellent word, it got into everybody’s mind from Byron’s splendid poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” The facts are in the Bible: Second Chronicles, Chapter 32. Byron’s poem begins, in galloping dactyls: The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold./ …That is, his regiment wore splendid uniforms, to overawe the poor jews.
From Byron’s poem the word “cohorts” probably passed through McGuffey’s Readers. And at some time in the last hundred years or so, a reporter remembered this fine poetic sentence, and inserted a concealed quotation from it into a newspaper story. Who he was, and what his subject, itis lost in time; but what he wrote was something approaching this: “At today’s parade in honor of St. Patrick, none stepped out more bravely than Police Captain Frank McGeoghegan, followed by his splendid cohorts.”
Now, you know what the media is like. They do not read books. Back then they just read other newspapers. The word “cohorts” stuck in the mind of another reporter who read the piece. And he in turn wrote something like this: “Borough President Mario Attilio Squarciafico attended today’s hearing at City Hall, with all his cohorts.”
Next, someone used the singular. He was the real murderer of the word: “One of the principal cohorts of Mayor James J. Walker during his tenure in office was…” So now “cohort” has almost gone. People take it to mean “assistant.” Or they are not quite sure what it means, but they believe it describes an individual who is somewhere nearby. Of course, one could retort that this is only journalism, and therefore acceptable that is a bit vulgar and not worth discussing. But these things tend to filter and spread such as “cohort” entering the world of literature.
J.D. Salinger, that sensitive novella writer, passed onto his readers the two misunderstandings of the word: one, that it refers to an individual and not a group, and the other, that it is civilian and not military. In Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters one of the brittle Glass family finds himself walking through the East Seventies with a little deaf-mute, nice situation, dressed for a wedding, good farce. ” A silk hat materialized in the air beside me, and my special, only technically unassigned cohort grinned up at me.”
Poor “cohort.” It means a trained body of soldiers in full uniform. But here it is being used to describe a man who gives an orchid to a girl, or a deaf-mute dwarf wearing a silk hat. …