Denver Bar Association
November 2012
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There’s a Word for That: Breaking Up the Monotony in Naming Groups

by Ryan Jardine

Crows as an image of Monotony


quiet little volume cried for attention during a recent trip to the library with all of the etiquette and decorum expected from such a treatise. I pulled from the shelf the groundbreaking 1896 “Social Life: or, The Manners and Customs of Polite Society Containing The Rules of Etiquette for All Occasions And Forming a Complete Guide to Self-Culture in Conversation” by the renowned author Maud C. Cooke. As I read the title I knew the evening’s table had been set and it was time to gather round the feasting board. As usual my mind yearned for “self-culture in conversation.” What I sought from the evening’s read was insight into the enthralling world of collective nouns.

As proclaimed by the revered W.S. Landor, “On a winged word hath hung the destiny of nations.” I knew in my heart that my words would not be winged until I possessed one crucial element: mastery over collective nouns. Webster defines collective nouns as “a noun, as in herd, that appears singular in formal shape but denotes a group of persons.” There are many unique and interesting collective nouns including a murder of crows, a shrewdness of apes, a superfluidity of nuns, an unkindness of ravens, and a pantheon of gods. There are even collective nouns for alligators, arsonists, bullfinches, butchers, ferrets, foresters, pheasants, and professors.

‘The Book of St. Albans’

The origin of this inventive and lyrical way of describing nouns is steeped in controversy and high drama. Some staunchly believe that these nouns originated in the 15th century. One such collectivist is James Lipton, author of “An Exaltation of Larks”: “What we have here in these terms is clearly the end result of a game that amateur philologists have been playing for over five hundred years.” Lipton explains that this dangerous game was played in the 15th century when the English language began a period of rapid expansion. “With each new wave of traders or invaders,” Lipton reasoned, “came new semantic blood, new ideas, and new ways of expressing them. The narrow, languid brook of the Celtic tongue suddenly acquired a powerful tributary as the splendid geometry of the Latin language burst into it, bringing such lofty sounds and concepts.”

At this time of rapid linguistic expansion, hunting was essential to survival, due to a shortage of local grocers and fast food establishments. As a result, many of these early collective nouns focused on animals. “The Book of St. Albans,” printed in 1486, included one of the earliest compilations of these collective nouns and was divided into three essential parts: hawking, hunting, and heraldry. Because when people aren’t hunting or hawking, they’re heralding. A 15th century New York Times book review may have quoted a regional hawker, hunter, and heralder as saying, “I can only say a group of peasants, swallows, lions, leopards and nuns for so many hours before I need something to break up the monotony. With ‘The Book of St. Albans,’ next time several leopards walk through our village, I will now know to sound the alarm for yonder cometh a leap of leopards.”

Victorian Parlor Games

Others suggest that these collective nouns arose during the dark period after the advent of discretionary time but before reality TV. During this Cimmerian era of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Victorian parlor games went viral. Legend states that Victorians would gather in a parlor–or a place designated for talking. After the conversation grew cold, it was time for the games. It is difficult to believe, but experts speculate that these certain games involved wordplay, wit, and the ability to suppress laughter. One such game, the Laughing Game, is described as follows: “One person began by saying, ‘Ha;’ the next, ‘Ha-ha;’ and so on around [the room], while all tried not to actually laugh.” Such was the excitement of the day. Collective noun enthusiasts suggest the identifying of fanciful collective nouns was one such game.

While I now understood the origins of collective nouns, collectively, my evening studies left me conflicted and pondering the precise origins of individual collective nouns. Why are crows murderous, apes shrewd, and ravens unkind? What inspired these linguistic prognosticators or innovative Victorians to choose the specific descriptors for each group? PBS attempted to explain “ye murderous crows” with an ancient folktale of crows en mass determining capital punishment for their peers. Some hypothesized that ravens are unkind because they don’t take kindly to competition or prey and at times upon chamber doors can be downright inarticulate. Still, I was left with more questions than answers. Are apes shrewd because, consistent with the 1567 definition, they are really very mischievous? And do nuns possess the secret of zero viscosity? While collective nouns’ individual origins still remained marinated in mystery, I rested assured that my newfound knowledge, borne of my evening’s study, was not wasted. My knowledge of collective noun origins would give my words flights as I join the eloquence of lawyers who examine, live up to, and cherish correct collective nouns. Or, at the very least, I discovered a new game to play in my newly renovated parlor. D

Ryan T. Jardine is a public finance attorney with Kutak Rock LLP in Denver and an amateur philologist. There’s a Word for That is an occasional and predominantly accurate column examining a babel of words.

Ryan Jardine

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