Monday, March 31, 2014

Anecdotal: Collective Nouns

Collective nouns are absolutely charming. Every time an obscure collective noun pops up in casual conversation, or even when collective nouns in general are the topic of conversation, I am excited. They fascinate me. There are some collective nouns that are used in our every day speech with no thought at all... "pride of lions", "school of fish", "hill of beans", "gaggle of geese"... but if you pause to think about them, you develop a sense of wonder. Where did they come from? Who first linked these words together? Why do we use them?

They are like dusty little pieces of poetry and mystery.... part of a long forgotten English lesson. I find them interesting and adorable.

Back in the Medieval era, nobleman spent time and money studying collective nouns, known then as "terms of venery" or "terms of the hunt". And hunting was a noble sport. Not only was it thrilling to be part of the chase, but it was equally thrilling to take part in an intellectual conversation about it, before and after. And if you were well-spoken, well-read, and were able to properly use all the venereal terms... well then, you were very manly and noble indeed.

Nobleman were devoted to their hunting terminology. Each different animal, all of its body parts, the year of its development, each stage of the hunt, and each feature of the hounds' behavior, were all part of venereal terminology, and knowing all the terms was an accomplishment of knighthood. Not knowing the collective noun of the creature being hunted, or any creature in the forest, whether beast, fish, fowl, or insect, would make you look inferior to another nobleman that did.

Which is another reason why I get a big kick out of them. They seem so silly and frivolous. Their importance to us now is not the same as it was back then. They may add a little flare to a boring sentence, or a little sparkle to a conversation if used today, but to a gentleman in the 15th century, not knowing them was a chink in your armor of manhood.

I love it... as I love all silly things when they are taken with a serious tone. It's one of my favorite clever jokes.

James Lipton must enjoy the same clever humor I do, because not only is he an actor in one of my favorite funny shows, Arrested Development, he's also a lover of collective nouns. He loves them so much that he wrote an entire book about them, An Exaltation of Larks. He calls it the ultimate edition, because it's probably the largest collection of collective nouns ever, not just for hunting and animals either, collective nouns for everything, some he even penned himself. All of them little snippets of wonder.

Mr Lipton writes in his books' introduction, his goal for giving us these old forgotten terms: "that a few... will stick to our ribs and be ingested into our speech. If they do, it isn't just that we will be able to turn to someone and coolly and correctly say, 'Look - a charm of finches.' What is more important is that a charm of poetry will have slipped quietly into our lives."

I love that.

I think reading about them, studying them, and having a few in your lexicon to use at the appropriate time is wonderful. Every proper mountain woman should have some up her sleeve to use at dinner parties and in intellectual conversation, or simply for anecdotal reasons. While they may seem a little ridiculous, if you start sprinkling them into your vocab, whether in a silly way or nonchalant, you will stick out as a well-read, well-rounded soul who loves little poetic pieces of history... and that's the clever and charming thing about them.

To see some proper lists of collective nouns, try these:
venereal terms: names of groups
list of collective nouns on wikipedia

Here's some of my favorite:
a nest of machine guns
a den of thieves
a can of worms
a tissue (or pack) of lies
a chorus of complaint
a rope of pearls
a round of drinks
a true love of turtledoves
a clowder of cats
a cluster of housecats
a destruction of wildcats
a kindle of kittens
a murmuration of starlings
a barren of mules
an ostentation of peacocks
a colony of rabbits
a skulk of foxes
a mob of kangaroo
a pod of seals
a business of flies
a flock of lice
a parliament of owls

some odd ones from An Exaltation of Larks:
a rascal of boys
a wandering of tinkers
a fighting of beggars
a herd of harlots
a gaggle of women
an observance of hermits

The images in this post are some of the images from the book.

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