Bill Long 6/11/06
Gaggles of Geese; Prides of Lions, etc.
Just two days ago a friend told me, in an offhand remark, she really would be interested in having a list of terms which describe how groups of animals are named. These words are technically referred to as "collective nouns." The most popular examples of these are probably a "flock" of something or a "company" of something else. She didn't tell me why this interested her; I think it appealed to her innate sense of order as well as her love of the natural world.
I filed her musing in my mind and decided what I would do tonight would be to find an online list or two of collective nouns, copy the list with attribution, make a few comments about some of the more interesting items, and then move on to my next topic. However, something happened to me as I was doing this task. I realized that even though there are online lists of collective nouns (I refer to a few lists below), the various collective nouns are just presented as if they are part of the language.
No attention is given online to the question of whether many of these are simply "nonsense" inventions, such as an "aarmory of aardvarks," which was obviously made up by someone who had too much time on his hands, or whether they have deep historical rootage and usage. No attention is given in any of the lists as to the connection between the collective term and the noun that it modifies. That is, were most of these collective nouns invented because of a particular characteristic of the noun it modifies? The thesis of my third essay in this collection will be that many of the earliest such collective nouns are best explained this way. Thus, the online lists give no attention to history, to the development of language, or to the connection between the nouns and the collective words. This, then, constitutes the problem of the collective noun. In order to try to "solve" this problem for my friend (though I'm not sure she even thought I was listening to her when she made the above observation), I had to try to come up with a method to understand the development of these nouns. The next essay will present that method. Let's begin, first of all, with a more vivid statement of the problem.
The Problem of the Collective Noun
I easily found this online list of collective nouns. The compiler of the list assures us that his list is the "correct" one, but that simple affirmation doesn't do much for me. Why is it "correct" when no explanation is given of any of the terms? In any case, we have familiar terms such as an "army of ants" or a "colony of ants" or a "swarm of ants" or "pack of hounds," all of which are very familiar. Then, he lists some terms that I will show in a later essay are very well attested historically, such as a "mute of hounds" or a "charm of hummingbirds." But then he gives us a term such as a "flange of baboons," which another online source (which probably is correct) says was first used as a joke in the British TV series "Not the 9 O'clock News" a few years ago. Even though the phrase "flange of baboons" might eventually become accepted, its origin in a comedy skit tends to obscure what I think is the key to the development of these terms--a connection or actual shared characteristic between the noun and the collective term. A flange, as we know, is a projecting flat rim or surface. There is really no way, in my judgment, that one can get from the word "flange" to "baboon."
A Historical Enticement
But let me give an example of how a noun is related to the collective through the fascinating case of a "shrewdness of apes." On first blush we might think that this is a kind of joke also, because apes are not often thought of as shrewd. When we call someone an "ape," we mean anything but the fact that the person shows shrewdness. As we scratch beneath the surface of this term, however, a whole new world opens. The OED has a reference to a "shrewdness of apes" in John Eliot Hodgkin's Proper Terms (1909). This important work, which I will describe in more detail in the next essay, collated medieval manuscripts of various lists of collective nouns. Two of the more important medieval collections he put together were from what was known as "Termys of venery" (the so-called Egerton MS 1995) and the 1486 Boke of St. Albans. These 15th century manuscripts had the following: (1) "A Schrewdenys of Apys" (Egerton) and (2) "A Shrewnenes of Apis" (St. Albans). Thus this term was attested in the late 15th century. But why a "shrewdness"?
The answer becomes clear when we understand the history of the use of "shrewdness" in English. The meaning of shrewdness as "sagacity or keeness of mental perception" only goes back to Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra 2.2: "So much uncurbable, her garboils, Caesar/ Made out of her impatience, which not wanted/ Shrewdness of policy too..." But three centuries before the Bard the only meaning of shrewdness was "wickedness, depravity; evil disposition, ill nature; malignity; maliciousness." In fact, its first usage was in connection with Lucifer, the Fallen Angel. With this cluster of concepts surrounding the first appeareance of shrewdness in our language, we can more readily understand how a "shrewdness of apes" would have appeared. As a matter of fact, now that we know what I have just described, it gives us new "glasses" to study how apes might have been perceived by people in the Middle Ages...
Concluding with "Gams"
What we may often find, however, is something in between the "flange of baboons" (late 20th century nonsense attestation) and the "shrewdness of apes" (15th century attestation). I will close with one such example, which I hope will whet your interest for the methodological discussion in the next essay.
Have you heard of the word "gam" or "gams?" I first became acquainted with the slang use of the word (meaning "legs") in the late 1970s. But its collective use, as a "gam of whales," which only goes back to the 1850s, was pretty firmly fixed among seafaring folk. It means "a herd or school of whales" or "a social meeting of whalers at sea." From 1850: "Gam is the word by which they designate the meeting, exchanging visits, and keeping company of two or more whale ships, or a sociable family of whales." Herman Melville used the term the next year to describe a meeting of whalers. The term "gam" goes back to the 16th century, however, to describe large teeth, tusks, or mouths. Maybe there is a connection between the fearful mouth of the whale and the develpment of the collective noun "gam of whales." We don't really know.
These three example give proves into the notion of the collective noun. The next essay becomes more precise on our method for dealing with this problem.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long