A forlorn hope is a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the leading part in a military operation, such as an assault on a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high. Such a band is also known as the "enfants perdus". The term comes from the Dutch verloren hoop, literally "lost troop". The Dutch word hoop usually means "hope" but is in this context cognate to the English word "heap". The term was used in military contexts to denote a troop formation. The Dutch word hoop (in its sense of heap in English) is not cognate with English hope: this is an example of false folk etymology. The mistranslation of "verloren hoop" as "forlorn hope" is "a quaint misunderstanding" using the nearest-sounding English words.
This false etymology is further entrenched by the fact that in Dutch the word hoop is a homograph meaning "hope" as well as "heap", though the two senses have different etymologies. While the word hoop has many equivalents in English, including 'pile' and 'accumulation' perhaps the nearest English translation that most accurately captures the sentiment, at least in military affairs, is lost bunch or lost crowd given the slender expectations of those given such a high-risk assignment.
References / notes
- Forlorn hope. Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. Accessed 20 April, 2017.
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