My friend Kaity Tong’s blog (Are YOU Smarter Than a Sixth Grader?) got me to look deeper into collective nouns. We all know that we refer to a group of fish as a “school” and a group of elephants as a “herd.” Well, what do you call a group of crows? Kaity’s 6th grader knew: it’s “a murder of crows.”
Where did such terms come from – and why are they needed?
Intrigued, I immediately Googled “collective nouns” and found numerous listings. I eventually found a reference to James Lipton’s book An Exaltation of Larks and quickly borrowed a copy from my local library (as a user, I can attest that the Columbus Metropolitan Library has earned its rating as #1 public library system in the U.S.). In this wonderful book, Lipton describes his research into these terms and provides almost 1200 of them – the most definitive list I’ve come across – with some of their origins.
Lipton advocates calling such descriptors of groups of things “terms of venery,” noting that “collective nouns” would be a misnomer, confusing them with words such as “majority” (and committee, team, family, etc.). He justifies “venery” from its etymology signifying “the hunt” and this is where such descriptors originated in the English language: from books of the 1400s, The Egerton Manuscript (1450) and The Book of St. Albans (1486), that provided the earliest surviving lists of these terms and these related primarily to game animals, though also to people and 15th century life. He also described the 15th century as a period in which the English language exploded with new words, providing a new descriptive richness to the language.
Some terms have become so idiomatic, they don’t sound like collective nouns. A litter of pups. A month of Sundays. A mountain of debt. A hill of beans. A head of steam. A can of worms. A baptism of fire. An embarrassment of riches.
So that’s where these terms came from. Why were they needed? Why isn’t “group” enough of a modifier to describe any collection of objects? Since most of these terms of venery are unique to their objects, aren’t they superfluous?
Alas, here Lipton provides less information (and my Google search provided nothing more). He cites Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1906) suggesting “for every collection of beasts … there is their own private name so that none may be confused with another.” Closer to the period of their origin, in the 1400s, inventing terms of venery had become a somewhat of a game and of social commentary. (A rascal of boys. A gaggle of women. A pontificality of prelates. A blast of hunters. A drift of fishermen.) Not knowing the correct term was an indication of ones lack of education and breeding. (What would you think of someone who referred to “a school of elephants?”)
Lipton himself advocates use of such terms to retain the beauty and richness of the English language – the essence of poetry. Terms of venery illuminate the object to which they refer – they “add something to the equation.” Lipton points out that Shakespere’s The Comedy of Errors is a group term, as is “a sea of troubles” (Hamlet, Act III, Sc. 1). He notes “the poet came up with a more imaginative term” and cites a couple of dozen other terms in publications from the Bible to New York Magazine in which authors have continued to play the Game of Venery. (George Plimpton: An om of Buddhists. Neil Simon: A mews of cathouses. Kurt Vonnegut: A phalanx of flashers. And the unattributed: An obstinacy of buffaloes. A tower of giraffes. A pomp of Pekingese. A wobble of bicycles. A dawdling of waiters. A mass of Bostonians. A spread of Texans. An upyours of New Yorkers.)
It is these newer, unfamiliar venerial terms that trouble me. While they are clever, I have difficulty envisioning them becoming so popular that they will eventually become a natural part of speech. And this brings me back to my “why” question. While Lipton decries – as do I – the dumbing down of Americans and the loss of English literacy, given the losing battles of over grammar, usage, and spelling, will the public suffer the need to memorize further peculariarities of the English language for the sake of advancing the poetry of the language?
To go further, into territory only obliquely mentioned in Lipton’s book: How extensively do other languages employ terms of venery?
In the very little Chinese I learned as a child, I recall that there are such terms in the Chinese language. These “modifiers” typically accompany the noun and often refer to quantity or measure. There’s a generic modifier (“ge”), but use of a modifier specific to the noun is far preferred. My mother cautioned me that to use “ge” instead of the specific modifier is a sign of lack of education. As an American-born Chinese, learning Chinese was tough enough without having to learn a gaggle of modifying terms! Perhaps that’s why I gave up studying Chinese (much to my later regret).
So there’s an answer parallel with the English “why” question: to indicate degree of education. But the Chinese language has a much more fundamental reason for having such modifiers. Because Chinese is a largely monosylabic language, so many Chinese words sound like other Chinese words with completely different meanings (homonyms). Using modifiers helps distinguish among the many objects that would otherwise sound like other objects. As in the rest of the Chinese language, the context in which a word appears with other words helps the listener interpret what is being said. Hence, there’s a very good reason why the Chinese language needs terms of venery.
But in English, words for objects don’t often sound like other such words, so avoiding confusion isn’t a good justification for adding complexity to the language. At this point, I can only speculate as to other reasons. English, as a relatively young language, may have borrowed the use of modifiers such as terms of venery from other languages. Lipton acknowledges such borrowing in his book, citing examples of words borrowed from the French. Going deeper then, how widely do Latin and Greek (the basis of most English words) and other world languages (from which the English may have borrowed) use terms of venery? I have no idea, but I now have a new topic of discussion for future cocktail parties in which I might find myself in the company of a babel of foreign language scholars. Hoorah!