Collective Nouns V
Bill Long 6/13/06
We still have loads of terms from the previous essay to explore, so let's pick a few and reflect on them.
1. A "rysing of Rebellez or of shrewez" makes us smile. We see in our mind's eye a revolt or a storm of protest which, when several people combine to do it, becomes a "rysing." What most don't know is that the word shrew was applied earlier and more commonly in the English language to men rather than to women. A shrew is "a wicked, evil-disposed, or malignant man;...; a rascal, villain." Thus, a shrew would be synonymous with a rebel; rebels as well as shrews, by their nature, rise in rebellion against some constituted authority. Thus, their name is easily explicable.
2. A "sourde" of mallards is now known as a "sord" of mallards. The only attestation of "sord" as a noun in English is in connection with these birds. "Sord" is ultimately derived from the Latin "surgere," meaning "to rise." I wonder if a mallard in fact or in thought was believed to soar majestically in flight. Indeed, even as recently as 2003 a mallard was said to "soar," by none other than US Representative Mike Ross of Arkansas, who commended the artist Dortha Scott for designing the Arkansas quarter with a mallard soaring above a lake.
3. A "sulk" or "skulk" of foxes. We know that a "sulk" is a state of ill humor or resentment marked by obstinate silence or aloofness. A "skulk" isn't greatly different from a "sulk." A "skulk" is one who "skulks or hides himself; a shirker." It can also be a company or gathering of persons or animals given to skulking. Hodgkin lists three things that were known to be called "skulks" in the 15th century: "freris (i.e., priests living in monasteries; "thewys" [I don't know what these are] and "foxys."). Isn't that a wonderful characterization of the fox--which will go into hiding at the slightest provocation?
4. I was delighted and even surprised to see "denne" of thieves attested so early. So the characterization of these brigands as holing up in some kind of cave or den really goes back very deep into history. The "bryghtte" of barons and "Ray" of knights no doubt reflects their gleaming equipment or shining manner.
5. I wonder about one that isn't on the list from these three MS, but does appear to be attested in the 15th century, but not thereafter until the 19th--an "exaltation of larks." All the OED says is that it is a fanciful name for a flight of larks. I think that this term will have a little bit of a resurgence in our day because of the catchy sound of the collective, though it really isn't that well attested in literature. Indeed, Prof. Macklin Smith, on this web site, argues that the notion of an "exaltation" of larks, though seemingly attested early, sounds like it is more properly attributed to 18th century "salon talk" than earlier hunting terminology. I will have to stay mum on this one, not even a murmuration from me, until I have more data to go on here.
Finishing With People
Even though I love animals and birds, I want to pause over a few of the people-centered collectives that I listed in the previous essay. I have already discussed a "haras of harlotes." We have also a "blast of hunters." Since most of these collective terms are found in old guides to hunting, it makes sense that the hunters themselves would have picked a word of self-characterization. A "blast" of hunters is brilliantly descriptive, for it is in this action that they show themselves as hunters. They "blast away" at their prey. I wonder if they were having a blast while doing it.
Then there is a "musycion of synger(s)." As we know, a musician is a person talented in the art of music. This usage of the term goes back to the end of the 14th century. We can perhaps look at this collective in the same way as a gender of swine, which I described in the previous essay. The word "gender" expresses the generic or broad term, which then is qualified by the specific term. So it is here. The general term is a musician, and the specific terms are singers. I just had never seen it this way previously.
Let's conclude this essay with a "solaz of gode felychyp." We know the meaning of solace. It suggests an entire world of meaning--from comfort to consolation to alleviation of sorrow or distress to pleasure, enjoyment and even delight. Since this occurs right near the end of the Cambridge MS (being followed only by the "Rebellez"), we might conclude that the author/compiler of the common nouns was giving a sort of biblical or, more precisely, a Deuteronomic "coda" to the list--emphasizing the "good" and the "bad" of human connection. But it is good to end on the beneficence of human interaction, for there is almost nothing better in life than the solace provided by good fellowship. It gives a larger interpretive grid to understand one's problems; it provides distraction and entertainment; it gives insight into areas of knowledge you don't have; it affords love and special moments of intimacy. I am glad that our author leaves us with the thought of good fellowship.
But the last word of the MS is "Explicit." This is a common way to end medieval manuscripts, and it is regarded either as the 3d pers. sing. of the verb meaning to "unroll" or "end" or an appreviation of the past participle and verb and noun--"explicitus est liber," lit. "the book is unrolled." A MS starts with "incipit" and ends with "explicit." As is the manscript, so are my thoughts--unrolled.
And, oh, I end this with a comment the weirdest current common noun. I don't know where, when or how it originated but the OED list has a "tok of capercailez." If you can figure that out, let me know.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long