Collective Nouns III
Bill Long 6/12/06
From the Cambridge MS
At the end of the previous essay, I introduced some of the earliest terms we have in English to express collectives: herds (harts, swans, cranes); bevy (of ladies; quails; roes. Ladies can also be a "company"). Then there was a covey of partridges, and an eye of pheasants. I closed with the gaggling of geese and babbling of women, knowing that I have just lost 50% of the vote if I decide some day to run for President. Oh, while I am on the subject, there is a lure of "maidenez" (line 26) which rather nicely balances the "babbling" of ladies. Isn't that a rather interesting one and a clear indication that it is the content of the noun that often explains why a particular collective was chosen?
Continuing on the List
This 15th century MS also has a "bevy" or "sege" of "heronez." The modernization of "sege" is "siege," and "siege" means a "seat." The Siege Perilous, for example, was the vacant seat at King Arthur's Round Table which could be occupied without peril only by the Knight destined to achieve the Grail. The OED has one definition for "siege" as "the station of a heron on the watch for prey. Hence, a group or flock of herons." The list also goes on to give us a "sege" (siege) of betores (bitterns).
Then we have a most charming and unexpected term: "a chyrmyng of goldfynch." The more modern signfication of "charming" as something very attractive or enticing obscures the historical meaning of the term, which suggests something which casts a magic spell or enchants. I don't know enough about the goldfinch to know if that was how it was considered at one time; I learned from this site, however, that the male is the only yellow bird with black wings and tail, with flight that undulates crazily.
Then we have a "hoste" or "company" of men and a "hoste" of "sparowz;" there is a "flyght" of "doovys" (doves) or "swaloez;" a little further down the list is a "turbe" or "spryng" of "teles" (teals). The OED defines "turb" as "a crowd, swarm, heap; a troop; also, a group or clump of trees." From 1489: "They came so fast by and by, And by so grete tourbes and hepes, that..." Watson's 1509 Ship of Fools had" "A grete turbe of foles fleeth to our shyppe."
A Few "Aha" Collectives
The Cambridge MS lists a "Grale of hennez" and a "lure of fawconez" (falcons), an "unkyndnez of Ravenz," a "superfluite of nonnez," a "state of preestez," a "dignite of chanonez" (canons) and a "frape of clerkez." Then, there is a "rysyng of Rebellez or of shrewez," a "somme of Gold," a "verge or mace of sylver," a "mewte, a pakke & a kenell of houndes" and a great "Fouiyson of corne." Let's speak of a few of these before closing this essay.
In reverse order, what is a "foison of corn"? The word "foison" is a very old one in English, and it suggests an abundance, a great quantity, a plentiful crop or harvest. The "horn of plenty" in classical mythology was a funneled basket bursting with corn and other produce of the earth. Thus, a "foison of corn" emphasizes both the abundance and nourishing power of the corn. I rather like this one.
We have taken over a "pack" of hounds and a "kennel" of hounds into our vocabulary, even though the latter has become the place where hounds are kept. From earliest days in English, however, a "kennel" could refer both to the group as well as the lodging place. One old quotation also refers to a "brace" of hounds, though the Cambridge MS doesn't know that appellation. A "brace" isn't even in this OED-created list, the most complete list of collective nouns I have seen.
But how about a "mewte" (mute) of hounds? If mute means to silence, how can this be appropriate? But the English language is so rich, especially so in the shorter words, that we are unaware that the oldest meaning of mute is a "pack of hounds." In Late (Medieval) Latin, a mueta was a pack of hounds, and in French a mute was a pack of hounds trained for hunding. Thus, from 1350 we have the following definition: "Un mute de chiens, a mute of houndes."
Silver/Gold and Ecclesiastical Officers
It is refreshing to have one of the collectives be a "somme of Gold," since that is exactly the way we speak today: a "sum of money." But we also have a "verge" or "mace" of silver. The word verge has about 18 significations in English, with the first one being "penis," but I daresay that has llittle to do with a "verge of silver." One of the definitions of "verge" is as a rim or edge of something, and a "verge of silver" might emphasize the way that silver is edged. Otherwise, I am in the dark. What is a "mace" of silver? A mace, as we all know, is a pronged club, but it is also a measurement of silver--a term that goes back to at least the 15th century. So, we have "sums of gold" and "maces" or "verges" of silver.
Let's conclude this essay (I will write another one!) with the ecclesiastical terms. I roared with laughter when I read that a group of nuns is called a "superfluite"--suggesting their supernumerary existence. The thoughts was that we don't need any more nuns; whenever they are together, you have a superfluity of them. Hence, a "superfluite of nonnes." But the male clergy in general are treated more leniently. There is the "dignity" of the canons and the "state" of priests, though then this positive assessment is muted a bit throught the "frape" of clerks. What is a "frape?" The term goes back to the 14th century and means "a crowd; a mob, the rabble." It really is a rather derogatory term. "Let loose the Frape to show their Folly."
I still have a few more "aha's" to pick up on in the next essay, and then I will conclude with a few more from the Cambridge MS and two other MS. discussed in the previous essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long