"Shot himself in a genital"?

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Sent in by Joe Boyd:

I read this schadenfreude-inducing story and was stuck by the singular use of "a genital" as a noun describing the scrotum ("A 46-year-old man accidentally shot himself in a genital Thursday after a gun slipped from his waistband, police said").

Two things struck me as weird about this: first, a "genital"'? Not the "genitals" or "genitalia"? And second, "a" genital? Not "one of his" genitals (if not the most natural "the genitals")?

I don't think I've ever encountered it before. It's difficult to track down other instances, as searches for "a genital" return uses of 'genital' in adjectival form (I suppose one could search for text that doesn't contain "warts" or "herpes" or other nouns that are often modified by "genital," but this seems like work for a qualified linguist). I had never thought about how you would divide "genitals" into their singular components, but the Wikipedia entry gives the following clarification:

"The Latin term genitalia, sometimes anglicized as genitals, is used to describe the externally visible sex organs: in male mammals, the penis and scrotum … The genitals and the internal sex organs are referred to as the secondary sex organs. The primary sex organs are the gonads… specifically the testes in the male …." (I would have assumed the testicles were included in "genitals" but apparently not so!)
So, the news story's characterization seems logical, if we take the scrotum as one of the two genitals (the bullet apparently "exited his scrotum").

Regarding my second reaction, on the use of "a" genital, this is perhaps logical. It seems weird at first glance, as I would expect "his genital", or more naturally, "one of his genitals" would be more natural. On the other hand, we would say that he shot himself in "the leg", rather than "his leg" or "one of his legs". I suppose since the two (apparently) genitals are quite different from each other in a way that our two legs are not, we can't just say "the genital". We want to know which "genital" was shot more urgently that which leg, I suppose.

But, in the end, why not just, "he shot himself in the scrotum"?

You might think the writer wanted to avoid words like scrotum, but not so — the story continues

Marion Police Department issued a news release via Facebook that said Mark Anthony Jones did not have a license for the Hi-Point 9mm gun he was carrying. 

Jones, in the emergency room of Marion General Hospital, told police he was walking about 6:44 a.m. Thursday on a riverside trail near the Marion Girl Scout Cabin. That's west of the Washington Street bridge over the Mississinewa River. He said when the gun began to slip from his waistband, he reached to adjust the firearm and it discharged.

"The bullet entered just above his penis and exited his scrotum," the release said.

Geoff Pullum's comment:

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (page 343) lists "genitals" as one of a group of miscellaneous nouns that, although they don't denote pairs like "scissors" or "knickers", appear ONLY in the plural: alms, arrears, auspices, particulars, troops, and a dozen others.
But there are always usage outliers, and also inexperienced newbie interns writing their first news story.  Occasionally "troops" has turned up in the singular denoting an individual soldier, and now "genital" has been used for "an individual (and unnamed) part of the genital organs". I think I would want to say that the grammar is correct, though, and that this occurrence is an error.
Language continues to be so strange!

Maybe genital is going the way of troop? See "Look lively, troop!" (2/25/2005) and "Plural, mass, collective" (12/8/2006).

The obligatory screenshot:



33 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 1:21 pm

    Although "troops" as a military term is normally used in the plural, a "Scout troop" is a frequently occuring singular use of the word, as is (e.g.) "a troop of monkeys", etc. So I cannot concur with the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language on this point,

  2. Rob said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 1:30 pm

    What a shame – we in the UK can't see the story because "This site is currently unavailable to visitors from the European Economic Area …"

  3. cliff arroyo said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 1:38 pm

    Given that some journalistic content is now outsourced to non-native speakers (and then sort of edited by native speakers) or even computers, I'm not sure if this is significant as an example of spontaneous native usage.
    Is there evidence this was produced by a human (and if so, if the human is a native speaker of English)?

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 1:53 pm

    I'm wondering if "genital" in the headline is simply a typo for "genitals", and someone downstream then "corrected" the first line of the article to agree with the head.

    Regarding "particulars", I can imagine using "particular" as a singular noun if one wants to single out, from the particulars of a case, one particular in particular.

  5. Michael Watts said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 3:51 pm

    Philip Taylor, the general view is that troop, "a collection of people or things" (Merriam-Webster sense 2) is not the same word as troop sense 1c "plural: armed forces, soldiers", in the same way that the verb troop "to move in a crowd" is not the same word as either of the above.

    That said, the example sentence here of "Satellite photographs provide us with a lot of information about their troop movements." appears to be an example of troop used with the "armed forces" meaning in the singular. Steven Pinker argues in Words and Rules that there is a rule causing nouns which appear as modifiers in nouns phrases to take singular form unless their plural is irregular, and that seems like a good candidate for what's going on in that sentence.

    (dictionary.cambridge.org solves the problem differently, by calling troop an adjective, but it seems safe to dismiss that explanation.)

  6. koj said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 4:14 pm

    I have observed 'troop' used as a singular vocative by US military members, perhaps a contraction of 'trooper'.

  7. Simon Wright said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 4:51 pm

    Michael Watts – also, troop carrier

  8. Michael Watts said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 4:59 pm

    "Troop movements" and "troop carrier" are both interesting in that they use a singular form of troops even while their semantics are clearly plural. Hence the appeal to a rule that governs the form of modifier nouns without regard to whether they would otherwise be singular or plural.

  9. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 5:26 pm

    People sometimes say things like '5000 troops', meaning 5000 soldiers, not 5000 of the historic units of that name, confirming the thought that they are different words.

  10. Jamie said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 6:29 pm

    @Rob, you just need to wait a few weeks and … problem solved!

  11. Alexander Browne said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 10:24 pm

    In the US, with our separate armed services, only people in the Army are 'soldiers'. But 'troop' also works for someone who is in the Marines, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard.

  12. Brett said,

    March 3, 2019 @ 11:40 pm

    @Alexander Browne: Only calling members of the army "soldiers" is a neologism that the defense community likes. However, the long-standing usage is that "soldier" denotes "one who takes part in military service or warfare, particularly when done for pay."

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 12:17 am

    I've been used to "5,000 troops", meaning 5,000 members of the military, for quite a while, but "5,000 forces" still sounds strange to me. In case anyone hasn't met it, "Votel has said he does not expect President Donald Trump's withdrawal of more than 2,000 troops from Syria to significantly alter U.S. troop levels in Iraq, where the United States has more than 5,000 forces." From a Reuters article.

    Brett: I found the phrase "soldiers and sailors" back to 1704 in A. and J. Churchill, A Collection of Voyages…, and I gave up looking for earlier examples at that point. I don't think reserving "soldier" for members of the army is that much of a neologism.

  14. zafrom said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 1:23 am

    "But boots—boots—boots—boots—movin' up an' down again,
    An' there's no discharge in the war!"
    As for "just above", Judge/Assessor Brack in "Hedda Gabler" (1962 translation by Michael Meyer) mentions that a man shot himself "In the — stomach. The — lower part –".

  15. Peter Dugdale said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 3:09 am

    I don't think the poster meant "schadenfreude".
    Unless it's another word like "eponymous" which is being hijacked and the "incorrect" usage is becoming the "correct" one. Or perhpaps he is that evil?

  16. RP said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 3:34 am

    @Brett,
    How recent do you suppose this specialisation in usage is?

    The OED definition: "One who serves in an army for pay; one who takes part in military service or warfare; spec. one of the ordinary rank and file; a private."

    Although "army" could historically refer to the armed forces in general, it seems to be used here in its modern sense of a land army. "A private" also seems to refer to a member of the armed forces on land.

    The second sub-sense is admittedly vaguer.

    However, looking at this example (under "soldier"):
    1840 R. H. Dana Two Years before Mast iv. 28 You're neither man, boy, soger, nor sailor!

    and this (under "sailor"):
    1801 Med. & Physical Jrnl. 5 354 Nor has a single soldier or sailor been prevented from doing his ordinary duty.

    It would appear that for at least two centuries there has been something of a tendency to contrast "soldiers" with "sailors", which presupposes a narrower definition of "soldier" than you're proposing.

  17. Tom Dawkes said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 4:19 am

    I was puzzled by the choice of words "in a genital Thursday", which suggests to me a special day of the week…

  18. Keith said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 8:44 am

    That said, the example sentence here of "Satellite photographs provide us with a lot of information about their troop movements." appears to be an example of troop used with the "armed forces" meaning in the singular. Steven Pinker argues in Words and Rules that there is a rule causing nouns which appear as modifiers in nouns phrases to take singular form unless their plural is irregular, and that seems like a good candidate for what's going on in that sentence.

    But in cases like this (troop carrier, troop movements), the noun "troop" in functioning as if it were an adjective, and in general, in English adjectives are invariable, i.e. do not have a plural form.

    This is where I strongly disagree with Pinker, who cites examples in Words and Rules using a plural in similar constructions; the one that springs to mind (if I remember rightly) is of a monster that eats rats, which he claims is a "rats-eater" (rather than a "rat-eater").

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 9:17 am

    There seem to be some transoceanic differences in the adjectival use of nouns used in the plural. For "drugs", North Americans say, for example, "drug use" while Brits and antipodeans say "drugs use". For "sports" it's the reverse — "sports section" — though in this case British usage has singular "sport" in the first place.

  20. Keith said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 9:38 am

    @Cory; in my experience, UK usage prefers "drug (singular) + noun", though plural is sometimes almost as prevalent.

    drug abuse site: *.uk
    About 1,010,000,000 results

    drugs abuse site: *.uk
    About 478,000,000 results

    So "drugs abuse" has a little less than half the ghits of "drug abuse".

    drug legislation site: *.uk
    About 1,170,000,000 results

    drugs legislation site: *.uk
    About 1,170,000,000 results

    So "drugs legislation" has the same number of ghits of "drug legislation".

    drug problem site: *.uk
    About 1,750,000,000 results

    drugs problem site: *.uk
    About 807,000,000 results

    So "drugs problem" has a little less than half the ghits of "drug problem".

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 10:05 am

    Keith: Google counts aren't reliable. The UK section of the GloWbE corpus has 512 hits on "drug abuse" and 4 on "drugs abuse".

  22. Alexander Browne said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 12:09 pm

    @Brett I agree, and 'soldier' definitely has that meaning for me. But media, like NPR, follow this usage, so I think it explains a lot of the singular 'troop' I hear these days.

  23. RP said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 1:56 pm

    There are a few exceptions to the plural-becomes-singular-when-attributive rule. It's notable that "rules-based" coexists with "rule-based".

    However, the strength of the tendency to use the singular form is seen in the fact that it occurs even when no singular normally exists: "scissor blade", "trouser leg", etc. So I agree that "troop" in "troop movement" just represents the attributive form of the plural "troops".

    On "soldier", Oxford Living Dictionaries gives only two relevant definitions: "A person who serves in an army" and "a private in an army" (and also defines "army" solely in terms of fighting on land). Collins Dictionary agrees.

    Chambers Dictionary leaves it more open ("member of a fighting force, especially a national army") as does Merriam-Webster ("one engaged in military service and especially in the army").

    On the whole though, it seems doubtful that the preference to reserve "soldier" for those fighting on land is particularly recent.

    It seems that in some other languages too there may be at least a tendency for "soldier" to refer in particular, although not exclusively, to members of land-based forces: "Homme équipé et instruit par l'État pour la défense du pays. Tout homme appartenant à la profession militaire (particulièrement dans l'armée de terre)" (Larousse).

  24. Michael Watts said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 5:52 pm

    On "soldier", Oxford Living Dictionaries gives only two relevant definitions: "A person who serves in an army" and "a private in an army" (and also defines "army" solely in terms of fighting on land). Collins Dictionary agrees.

    I find "a person who serves in an army" totally unsurprising as a definition of "soldier", but I'm surprised at the idea that an "army" by definition can only fight on land. I would say that e.g. the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force are all administrative divisions of the army of the United States. "Army" and "military" are basically synonymous.

  25. Michael Watts said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 5:56 pm

    ("Particularly on land" as opposed to "exclusively on land" is pretty easy to explain as a historical matter — you have a general term, "army", and a specific term, "navy", and since "navy" is almost always used to refer to the navy, "army" is almost always used to refer to the part of the army that isn't the navy. I'm sure there's a word for this kind of semantic development, but I don't know it.)

  26. AG said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 10:22 pm

    I feel like there's been an increase in a certain type of singular "troop", meaning one person, lately in a particular context. This might be hard to explain coherently, but: I've seen it used with a high degree of irony and disdain in online spaces like Twitter over the past 5 or 10 years, maybe as play on the idea that US citizens should constantly "support the troops".

    I think the idea is that to refer to someone by the clumsy-sounding "a troop" is a way to undermine the idea that simply having served in the military means they deserve veneration. Here's an example or two from Twitter:

    https://twitter.com/inthesedeserts/status/1101194113335087105

    https://twitter.com/PRB_09/status/1101293666319118336

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 4, 2019 @ 10:59 pm

    Michael Watts: You're right that "army" could originally include a force on the sea, according to the OED, but in your sense of "the army of the United States", it has only "With the. Frequently with capital initial. The entire body of a nation's military force trained and equipped to fight on land, permanently established and formally organized and maintained. Also: the military profession."

    So maybe "join the army" could include "join the navy" (though I don't think I've ever heard that), but "X is in the army" can only include the land force. But in definitions the OED seems to be rather casual about whether "soldier" and "army" include sailors and the navy.

  28. David C said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 1:06 am

    Singular 'genital' also occurs in John Kennedy Toole's novel "Confederacy of Dunces', in a diary entry by the main character, Ignatius Reilly: "Many no doubt required medical attention: a stitch or two here and there in a torn orifice or a broken genital."

  29. Philip Anderson said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 8:41 am

    Although 'troops' and 'troop of [soldiers/scouts] are different (but related) words, "Look lively troop" must have the second sense.

    Peter Dugdale: Schadenfreude seems unexceptional in this context; for those of us who regard the American obsession with guns as insane, his injury seems a suitable lesson. Not a charitable reaction perhaps, but hardly evil.

    "Drug use" sounds better to me than "drugs use", although I would say "Sports section", maybe by analogy with Arts and Politics, maybe because it does cover multiple sports. Generally singular modifiers sound better (though there are exceptions), even if the plural is irregular (child abuse, man flu, mouse droppings).

    In the UK at least, the term "armed forces" is used for the army, navy and air force together: N.B. both "army" and "armada" come from the Latin "armata" (armed), via French and Spanish, brespectively, but on is land-based, the other naval.

  30. KevinM said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 3:44 pm

    @ Keith, Coby, et al re: singular form of plural noun when used as an adjective: In sports broadcasts, it's "the Red Sox," but often the "Red Sock players."

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 5, 2019 @ 5:48 pm

    Philip Anderson: In the UK at least, the term "armed forces" is used for the army, navy and air force together

    In the U.S. too, along with "armed services" and "the military".

  32. Andrew Usher said,

    March 6, 2019 @ 6:55 pm

    Yes, 'schadenfreude' is etymologically appropriate, and it doesn't suggest 'the American obsession with guns', either – that's someone putting his own politics into it. Regardless of politics, the point is that you might well want to laugh at this 'victim' and the incident he caused; and, I might add, 'shot himself in a genital [sic]' only makes it worse.

    Also –
    'Drugs use' and 'drugs problem' may not be the only or even the majority UK usages, but they are impossible in the US and that's why they get cited. Similarly for 'sport' instead of 'sports' (the opposite change).

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  33. TIC said,

    March 13, 2019 @ 9:12 am

    Now that this thread seems to have run its course, I can't resist mentioning that it brought to mind the tale of the guy who, during an armed robbery that went awry, was wounded in a similarly vague/mysterious location — "he was shot in the fracas"…

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