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The Language Perfectionist: The Cohort Retort

From a U.S. Department of Justice news release:

“The following morning, when the first employee of the day entered the bank,
Smith and his cohort, armed with handguns, confronted the employee and demanded
money contained in the bank’s vault.”

It’s common for an individual, especially one engaged in unsavory activities, to be described as a cohort of someone else. In this sense, the word is intended to mean an associate, companion, or accomplice.

But the proper meaning of cohort is a group that shares a demographic characteristic: “Great Depression cohort” or “Generation X cohort,” for example. Sociologists and statisticians frequently use such terms in their studies. It’s also correct to say “a cohort of Stanford faculty members” or to use the word in reference to any other distinctive group.

Notes Bryan Garner, in his useful style guide Garner’s Modern American Usage: “This newer meaning [companion] has remained a rather informal one for this respectable word, which in formal writing should retain its older sense.”

But remember that even in informal contexts, as applied to an individual, cohort has acquired a pejorative connotation. No one ever says, “I’m headed for the big game with my best cohort.”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]