by David Crystal
I think it went something like this. A group of monks, wondering how to pass the time on a cold, dark winter’s evening in the 15th century, invent a word game. ‘Let’s think up words for groups of things’, says one. ‘What do we call a group of cows?’ ‘A herd.’ ‘A group of bees?’ ‘A swarm.’ A group of geese?’ ‘A flock’. Words like herd and swarm had been in the language since Anglo-Saxon times. There weren’t many of them, and the few that were available had been used for all kinds of things. People talked about a herd of cranes, wrens, deer, swans, gnats and more. The game must have palled after a while.
Then someone had a bright idea. ‘Let’s think up better words. What would be a really clever way of talking about geese?’ ‘A cackle of geese, maybe?’ ‘Not bad, but that better suits hens. What about gaggle? It goes better with goose because of the g’s? What do you all think?’ ‘Agreed? Write it down, Brother John.’
And Brother John did. Or maybe it was Dame Juliana. She was the prioress of Sopwell nunnery, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, and her name appears in a collection of material on hunting, heraldry and folklore that was printed in 1486, called The Book of St Albans. It’s one of the first English printed books, and it contains a list of some 200 collective nouns. Several are traditional expressions, such as herd. But many seem to be inventions. This is where we find a muster of peacocks, an unkindness of ravens, a watch of nightingales, a charm of goldfinches and dozens more. But the list goes well beyond animals. We find a diligence of messengers, a superfluity of nuns, a doctrine of doctors, a sentence of judges, a prudence of vicars and a non-patience of wives. And people tried out fresh combinations. ‘A gaggle of geese?’ ‘What about a gaggle of women?’ ‘Write that down, Brother John’. He did. A gaggle of women is recorded in a book written around 1470. An early sexist joke.
Why do I think this is the sort of thing that happened? Because this is a game people still happily play today, and human nature hasn’t changed that much in 500 years. A great deal of entertainment can be derived from thinking up the funniest way of describing a group of ‘X’ – where X can be anything from dog handlers to dentists. What’s the best collective noun for politicians, or undertakers, or linguists? Competitions have produced some fine examples. I made my own collection a few years ago, and found many that deserve prizes. Here’s a top ten:
An absence of waiters
A rash of dermatologists
A shoulder of agony aunts
A clutch of car mechanics
A vat of chancellors
A bout of estimates
A lot of auctioneers
A mass of priests
A whored of prostitutes
A depression of weather forecasters
An exces’s of apostrophes
And still they come. In recent times I’ve encountered a crash of software, an annoyance of mobile phones and a bond of British secret agents.
This is the third in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘OK’. Scroll back for ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.