Exaltation of doves & destruction of wild cats: mediaeval collective nouns

We were all taught the more common collective nouns as schoolchildren, being sent home with a list to learn that contained a gaggle of geese, a pack of dogs, a chain of islands, and a bouquet of flowers. But I am quite captivated by the more unusual and intriguing collective nouns that one never hears in this day and age unless searched out:

–          a charm of finches (how poetic),

–          a superfluity of nuns (a socio-political statement if ever there was one),

–          a bloat of hippo (how apt), and

–          a fesnyng of ferrets (that word doesn’t even look like English!).

Many would agree that the overabundance of specialised collective nouns is one of the most peculiar aspects of the English language. Most will only ever be known by so few that they have no practical value. By and large the terms were developed and promoted in the 14th and 15th centuries, which helps to explain the odd-looking ‘fesnyng’, a word that most likely was never much used beyond the Middle Ages and hence has retained its Middle English spelling.

Some of the collective nouns from that bygone period which refer to groups of people are really quite revealing, as one doesn’t have to be an etymologist to gain historical insight from terms such as:

–          a doctrine of doctors (a doctryne of doctoris),

–          a fighting of beggars (a fightyng of beggers),

–          an uncredibility of cuckolds (an uncredibilite of cocoldis),

–          a disworship of Scots (a disworship of Scottis),

–          a drunkship of cobblers,

–          a hastiness of cooks, and

–          an observance of hermits.

The great majority of collective nouns are however to do with animals. Such are called nouns of assembly or terms of venery (venery referring to the hunt or chase, especially with hounds). The English adopted the idea of terms of venery from the French (which is generally the direction in which borrowings flowed in those days: continent to isle). Terms of venery were deliberately developed and used by the elite as a mark of distinction – the terms had no real practical use, but a gentlemen huntsman could distinguish himself by knowing and correctly using the specific terms of venery when talking with his peers.

More than one book was written at the time to promote the terms. As a result some of the terms entered into common parlance and have survived to this day, such as a herd of elephants. But I have come to realise how little present-day society esteems the art of language when compared with our predecessors. No longer do we study rhetoric, oratory and dialogue in the intense and devoted manner they did. No longer do we even sit down to thoughtfully craft letters to be read and reread by the recipients (and even sometimes read aloud to others at social gatherings). The reasons for this waning attention to discourse are not hard to deduce, but the point here is that a natural accompaniment to this trend is the decline of an extravagance such as discrete collective nouns for every specific grouping of animals. The elitist aims that fostered the collective nouns are certainly not to be missed, but I can’t help having a degree of nostalgia for a time when such fancies could flourish … for a time when there was a heightened awareness of society’s way of speaking and writing … for a time that I have never actually known.

Birds have, to my mind, been awarded some of the best terms of venery:

–          a convocation of eagles,

–          a stand of flamingos,

–          a siege of herons,

–          a gulp of magpies, and

–          a murder of crows.

As wildly diverse and profuse as the list is, and as impossible as it is to be able to guess the correct term without having learned it, there is some logic or ‘rightness’ to almost each term of venery when you know it and then think on it. A group of larks flying up into the sky: there’s something of exaltation in it. Ravens are not the gentlest of birds, and so we have an unkindness of ravens. Peacocks are arrogant little fellas, and so we have an ostentation of them. There does therefore appear to be a degree of sense to the colourful madness.

One could legitimately argue that such specialist terms no longer have a place in our increasingly egalitarian society (as they inevitably exclude many from the club of knowing while admitting only a few), and yet ‘dumbing’ everything down to a group or team would, I must admit, make me sad, as it would feel that we are diminishing the (wonderfully) curious and lyrical nature of the language. To talk of a group of bees rather than a swarm of bees seems a loss, and a host of angels will always be so much more a pleasing phrase than talking about a group of them.

Unless there is some sort of earnest (and probably grassroots) revival, I imagine more and more specialised collective nouns will be lost with time. I hope however that a few will always remain. Or am I alone in my affection for the erratic, whimsical and muddled story that is contained in our language? I’m sure I am not the only one to find myself thinking: English, you are one crazy guy – with your strange spellings, your weird fripperies, your idiosyncrasies, and your inconsistencies – but at day’s end you are my guy, and truth be told I wouldn’t have you any other way.

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If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in The books I’ve read hold the story of my life and inksomnia

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Feb 7, 2013: I just spotted this on Pinterest…

Attempted murder

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James Lipton has written a book entitled An Exaltation of Larks, and it was he who rediscovered many of the long-forgotten mediaeval collective nouns. Why not check out his book, as I intend doing.

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