Collective Nouns II
Bill Long 6/11/06
Dealing with the Problem Historically
The previous essay showed how one of the collective nouns you will see in online lists ("a flange of baboons") only goes back to an English comedy show from the late 20th century; one of them ("a shrewdness of apes") is attested as early as the 15th century; and one ("a gam of whales") was first attested in the mid-19th century. The most exhaustive list of collective nouns online is here, on a website run by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. This essay tells us where we can find medieval/early modern lists of these collective nouns--the earliest attested collections.
Scholars and Lists of Collective Nouns
The shape of the problem becomes clearer when we realize that there were medieval lists of collective nouns which are preserved in stray manuscripts in the Bodleian (Oxford), at Cambridge University, in other manuscripts or in edited texts. Let me introduce about five of those to you.
1. Pride of place in the study of "collective nouns" goes to John Eliot Hodgkin, who in 1909 published a study in the Transactions for the London Philological Society of these terms. In that study, known officially as Proper Names: An Atempt at a Rational Explanation of the Meanings of the Collection of Phrases in "The Book of St. Albans" (1486), entitled 'Compaynys of beestys and fowlys,' and Similar Lists, Hodkins collected and collated several manuscripts with these lists. His most important source was the 1486 Book (or Boke) of St. Albans. Several of his manuscripts were in English and some in Anglo-Norman (a French-type language). I don't have access to this work by Hodgkin; it is in no research library in the Northwest.
2. In 1936, Ms. H.E. Allen presented a list of collective nouns in what is known as the MS. Rawl. D. 328 (from the Bodlein library), a list which Hodgkin overlooked. This list appeared in the 1936 Proceedings of the Modern Language Association.
3. In 1962, Ms. Rachel Corner published "More Fifteenth-Century 'Terms of Association,'" in the Review of English Studies, New Series, 13 (1962), pp. 229-244. In this article Ms. Corner let us know that she had found yet three more medieval manuscripts with lists of such terms. The first, known as "Cambridge University Library (CUL) Ll. 1.18," derives from the late 15th century, and the list occurs in the MS a little before a set of instructions on hunting and hawking. The second MS, called "Bodleian Digby 196, f.157v." was apparently overlooked by Hodgkin. Oh, a word of identification. When it says "f.157v" it means that the list itself is found on page (folio) 157 "verso" or the "back" of the page. The other side of "verso" is "recto." The third MS examined by Ms. Corner was Lambeth 306, f. 176r., which also occurs at the end of a treatise on hawking.
Both the Cambridge MS and the Digby MS have much in common with some Anglo-Norman lists printed by Hodgkin in the appendix to his work. What this means is that even though each MS had its own list, there is considerable overlap among the lists. This would suggest that many of the terms, therefore, were commonly known and shared.
Since it isn't my purpose here to be exhaustive, my method will be to begin with the list of collective nouns found in the "CUL," one of the oldest extant lists of these nouns. Then, I will compare some of the Cambridge nouns with the other two lists given by Ms. Corner. As I do this, I will stop and investigate some of the more interesting nouns by doing some historical work on the word from the OED. Though I am not interested in trying to go through all of the few hundreds that are in the combined lists, I will try to focus on some of the more interesting ones. And, you should understand that many of the words are no longer clear to me and do not exist in the OED or any other place that I could find online. Perhaps an exhaustive Middle English Dictionary would have all these terms, but that is beyond my ken and scope of interest at this point.
The Cambridge MS lists about 75 collective nouns. Let me give you a few of them. We have:
1. A herde of hertes. A "hert" is a "hart" or a "deer" and so the origin of the phrase becomes explicable. Harts (hertes) collect in "herds."
2. A herde of swannez (swans). Also a herd of wrennez and a heerd (same word) of curlewz and a herd of cranes. A curlew, by the way, is a "grallatorial bird of the genus Numenius...with a long slender curved bill" (OED). By the way, the order Grallatore consists of long-legged wading birds.
3. Then, we move along to the word "bevy," a word of uncertain derivation (though several European languages have a root similar to this for "to drink"). The first thing which congregates in a "bevy" is "ladyes." Indeed, as the OED tells us, the original meaning of this term bevy was "a company of ladies, roes, quails or larks." It wasn't until 1600 that the word "bevy" became a generic term for a company of any kind. Ladies could also congregate in "companies."
But just a slight digression on the OED's first quotation using "bevy" from a mid-15th century book on hawking. "A covey of pertrich (partridges), a bevey of quayles, and eye of fesaunts." A covey is something that "sits together" or "incubates" or "keeps together" during the first season. Perhaps that is characteristic of a partridge. Finally, the notion of an "eye" of pheasants may not easily be understood. Some sources talk about the word "eye" as being a corruption of or derived from the French word for "egg." But why pheasants would be connected with eggs any more than with an eye is not clear to me at this point.
4. Let me conclude this essay by rushing ahead to the end of the Cambridge list, because women reappear. Numbers 69-71 are these: (69) "a company or gaglyng of gese;" (70) "a company or a bablyng of women;" and (71) "an habomynable (abominable) syght off monkys." I am afraid I have just given sexists fodder for the future, but I am doing it in the name of history....
I think I will have to do two more essays to give some more examples from these medieval manuscripts.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long