Collective Nouns IV
Bill Long 6/13/06
Finishing the Cambridge, Digby and Lambeth MS
Here is a non-exhaustive list of other collective nouns appearing in these three 15th century manuscripts. I also pick up a few from the previous essay I didn't have time to develop. Here they are:
We have a "Grale of hennez" and a "lure of fawconez" (falcons), an "unkyndnez of Ravenz," and a "rysyng of Rebellez or of shrewez." Then there is a "sourde of mallards," a "haunte of ploverz," a "teeme of signettes," a "syght of conyes," a "sulk" or "skulk" of foxes; a "denne of theves," a "bryghtte of baronez," a "Ray of knyghtez," a "huske or a denne of harez," a "cluther of kattez," a "cluster of grapez," a "route of wolves," a "herd of feldfares, curlews, and cranes," a "chaterynge of staris" (starlings), a "gendir of wild swyne," and a "charme of bees." Then, the ones I like best are also human collectives: "a haras of harlotes," a "blast of hunters," a "musycion of synger(s)" and, finally, most delightfully, a "solaz of gode felychyp" (i.e., a "solace of good fellowship"). At first the most obscure to me was a "drowping of sheldrakes." But, if we see the first word as "dopping," which relates to the verb "to dip," and understand that a sheldrake is a "bird of the genus Tadorna of the duck tribe," we can see how its frequent "ducking" into the water might have inspired a collection of them being known as a "dopping."
Where to Go?
1. There are about 25 collectives in the previous paragraph, each of which would be worthwhile to study. Let's look at a few. What is a "gendir" in the phrase "gendir of wild swyne"? I thought I knew what a gender was until I began to look at it in the dictionary. A "gender" is a "kind, sort, class; also, genus as opposed to species." Thus a "gender of swine" is just a the general category of swine, nothing more.
2. I also wanted to look at a "haras" of harlots. Interestingly, also, a group of horses could also be known as a "haras." From earliest times (13th century), a "haras" was "an enclosure or establishment in which horses and mares are kept for breeding; hence, a stud, breed, or race of horses." When we look at the meaning of "stud" in this time, we have: "an establishment in which stallions and mares are kept for breeding. Also, the stallions and mares kept in such an establishment." Now the reason for a "haras" of "harlots" is clear. It takes the image from the place where horses are kept and applies them to the ladies. Maybe a current term would be a "stable of slatterns," or other derogatory appellation--which I leave to your imagination.
3. Then there is a "chattering of starlings." Current lists of birds and their collective names mention this one, and even add another--a "murmuration of starlings." The most noticeable feature of starlings is that they mimic other creatures and sounds, depending on where they live. As this online description has it:
"European starlings have an amazing ability to mimic many sounds in their environments. We have heard wild starlings in our tree imitate car horns and children squealing. Many pet starlings can mimic the ringing of a phone or doorbell, an answering machine, a microwave's beep, a door closing, a dog barking, a person's sneezes, etc.."
To chatter means to talk rapidly, incessantly, with more sound than sense. Considering the starlings' imitative capacity, we now understand why their "group" was first called a "chattering."
4. What is a "Grale" of hennez? Well, another listing (the Digby MS) has a "garule of hennes." Now that we have the word "garule," we are brought into the world of "garrulous" or "garrulity." The earliest attestation of "garrulity" in English is slightly after the Digby MS and has: "Such as are like to proceede from a Fryer, full of impudence and garrulite." Garrulity or garrulous means "given to much talking, loquacious." With respect to birds or inanimate things it means "chattering" or "babbling." When you listen to the squawking of hens for more than a minute, you see how a "garule of hennes" would be a very descriptive common noun. One of the earliest usages of "garrulous" in English is from Chapman's translation of Homer's Iliad: "Where they were grave and wise Counselors, to make them garrulous, as Grasshoppers are stridulous..." (See my essay here on stridulate for information on that root).
5. A "lure" of "falconez" also is very explicable from knowing a little about falconry. As far back as the 15th century the word "lure" meant "an apparatus used by falconers to recall their hawks, constructed of a bunch of feathers, to which is attached a long cord or thongs, and from the interstices of which, during its training, the hawk is fed." Shakespeare used the word "lure" neatly in regard to falconry: "As Falcons to the lure, away she flies."
6. Let's conclude this essay with an "unkyndnez of Ravens." Ravens are "unkind" not because they say "Nevermore," as Edgar Allen Poe would have it, but because they feed chiefly on carrion or other flesh. Thus, the fact that a collection of them could be called an "unkindness" fixes once and for all in English speech our reaction to their antipathetic behavior. As the OED says: "The common raven is easily tamed, but is mischievous and thievish, and has been popularly regarded as a bird of evil omen and mysterious character." Even unkind, I dare say.
I need one more essay to complete what I want to say on this topic.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long