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Friday, 22 August 2008

Collective nouns

Yesterday, I was out walking around Smithills with my good friends Tex, Liz and Ste when we saw a group of herons. What do you call a group of herons we wondered? In the evening I looked it up and discovered three definitions: a hedge, a sedge or a siege. Siege sounds mysteriously ominous: God protect the unhappy protagonist on his way to make his fortune or find his true love only to find his path crossed by a siege of herons. According to folk law Herons symbolise patience and stillness, which seems to be more in keeping with the nature and behaviour of this large, elegant bird. Hedge of herons sounds good and has a alliterative feel.

Collective nouns are fascinating. Where on earth do they come from? Who coined them? The evolution of language is a subject I find more and more interesting. According to Wikipedia (yeah, yeah... David Crystal just isn't to hand) "The tradition of using collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals stems from an English hunting tradition, dating back to at least the fifteenth century. Terms of venery were used by gentlemen to distinguish themselves from yeomen and others and formed part of their education." Putting it crudely: "I know more big words and am more expressive then you are, mate, so fuck off back to the gutter." Or in this case, your pigs, your fowl and your ramshackle smallholding.

Collective nouns don't just apply to groups of animals. How about these for groups of professionals: a transcendence of metaphysicians, a lot of car dealers and a brood of researchers? And these: an ambush of widows, a flock of tourists and a thicket of idiots?

Not all collective nouns are quite so unfamiliar, however. Most of us will be familiar with the terms: a coven of witches, a gang of hoodlums and a band of brothers. Some of these nouns seem to have penetrated the popular imagination, while others are hardly used at all in everyday contexts. You may not have heard of a drifting of lecturers but will, no doubt, have described yourself as being in a crowd of people.

One website contains new suggestions for collective nouns: a blaze of pyromaniacs and a body of pathologists for example.