Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Load Of Rubbish

A crash of rhinos. A parliament of owls. I’m not above leafing through a book of miscellaneous lists once in a while, and such books occasionally have a list of collective nouns. I’ve got views about collective nouns.

Sometimes a collective noun will have become a word in one of the normal ways, and it will be used when people aren’t actually talking about collective nouns, and competence in speaking the language involves knowing what it’s used for. A certain kind of social grouping among lions is called a pride, and a different kind of grouping among ants is called a colony. If you call the lions a colony and the ants a pride then you’re making a linguistic mistake. I’m not sure exactly what kind of mistake it is. I think it’s probably a worse mistake than if you talked about a swarm of sheep or a flock of bees. It’s more or less just unidiomatic to talk about a swarm of sheep, but an ant colony really isn’t a pride. Maybe I’m being too harsh or not harsh enough on one of these kinds of mistake, but the point is that they’re mistakes. You’re flouting the conventions internalized by competent language users if you talk about a pride of ants, unless something very odd is going on.

Anyway, that’s not what a lot of collective nouns are like. Basically what happens is this. People know that there are collective nouns for some things, like lions, ants and bees. Glossing over the fact that a pride of lions isn’t just any old group of lions gathered into the same place at the same time, they notice that lots of things don’t have collective nouns. So they make them up. They make suggestions that are supposed to be fitting or satirical or simply euphonious, and congratulate each other when someone comes up with a good one. It’s a parlour game. As an extension of the parlour game, people will sometimes propose more or less comprehensive lists of the things. They don’t usually catch on, of course. The parlour game produces proposals for established usages, not established usages. Perhaps “murder of crows” is one that caught on. But usually they don’t catch on.

Now, part of the parlour game is that it begins with someone asking “what’s the collective noun for a group of lions/larks/ostriches?” If it was lions, someone could rightly say “a pride of lions”, and they’d be right. That is the established word for a kind of group of lions. You only move to phase two of the parlour game, where people make proposals, if you can’t come up with an answer at phase one. And one thing you might do in phase one is try to look it up. To meet this need, people make lists and put them in the kind of miscellany books I talked about at the beginning of the post. Now, a scrupulous listmaker would do what lexicographers do: look at established usage and see if there is a collective noun being used for a group of ostriches. If there used to be but it’s out of fashion, they’ll let you know it’s archaic or worse. And if there’s never been an established term for a group of ostriches, they don’t put one in the list. Alternatively, the listmaker could piggy-back on the efforts of a scrupulous lexicographer by looking through a dictionary written by one.

But our listmakers are not scrupulous. They want a nice long list with nice funny entries. Unfamiliar entries. So instead of looking at established usage or the records of it found in dictionaries, they copy the lists of proposals made by people who wanted to play the parlour game but had no friends to play it with. I once heard that there was a vogue at one point for sending such lists to magazines, though I don’t know if this is true. So now we have two kinds of lists. Lists of proposals which someone might send in to a magazine as an extension of a parlour game, and the plagiarized lists of lies that turn up in miscellany books.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. We’re all descriptivists now, and in the case of language, when a lie is repeated often enough it becomes the truth. I don’t know if that’s what we ought to say or not. So in the interests of science, I’ll look up “parliament”, “crash” and “exaltation” in the OED, to see if they give a usage meaning a group of owls, rhinos or larks respectively. I’m excited!

Parliament: it does mention “a parliament of owls” as an example of this extended usage:
Parliament definition owls OED.png
The usage of “a parliament of owls” they give is from a book called An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton, which is of course a book about collective nouns. (There may be nothing objectionable about the book. I haven’t read it, and as you can see I don’t have a problem with all instances of people writing about collective nouns.) Note that in the definition the OED gives there’s nothing that makes “parliament” any more appropriate to owls than to larks, and it’s less appropriate to either than to rooks, which the lists invariably say come in murders.

Crash: the entry doesn’t mention rhinos at all.

Exaltation: here’s the screenshot so you can judge for yourself:
Exaltation larks definition OED.png
I too can judge for myself, and I’d point out that the OED’s authors have not found any usages which were clearly not in the context of discussing collective nouns, and they also appear to think that the established way of referring to such a group of larks is as a flight. But of course A Flight Of Larks would not have been a good title for James Lipton’s book.

(The entry for “pride”, of course, has a definition as “A group of lions forming a social unit,” and gives several examples of it being used outside the context of discussing collective nouns. It says it’s an extended usage, but that’s probably accurate.)

So the scrupulous lexicographers at the OED present us with a bit of a mixed bag. A parliament can be a group of birds but isn’t specific to owls. A crash of rhinos isn’t a thing. An exaltation of larks is a thing but not to my mind a very honourable one, though your mileage may vary.

Now, up until recently I had the very negative attitude towards this whole collective noun nonsense that astute readers will have detected in the foregoing. However, the other day I saw some medievalists playing the parlour game on Twitter - they were still on a high from a conference in Leeds, where I live, and wanted a collective noun for medievalists - and I must say it seemed like fairly harmless fun. So I don’t know what to think. I guess if all you’re doing is making suggestions, that’s fine. And if you make a really good suggestion at the right time, say you’re at a medievalist conference and you think of a good one for a group of medievalists, then it might end up as an established term like “pride” or “colony”. That's fine too. But don’t make lists of lies, and certainly don’t go correcting someone when they call a group of rhinos a colloquium just because you read somewhere that we’re supposed to call it a crash.

3 comments:

  1. While I'm sympathetic to the general thrust of this, there may be a little bit more to the story. One of the most striking fact about such collective nouns is that they don't seem to have much genuine utility in the language, and that fact alone might push you to the sceptical position that it's all a load of rubbish. I have seen the suggestion, though, that the initial proliferation of fanciful collective nouns for animals served a linguistic purpose of sorts: that it was originally a shibboleth of genteel hunting enthusiasts, who used the mastery of such vocabulary as a way to distinguish the in-crowd from the rest. (From which point onwards it took on a bit of a life of its own.) I've never looked into this so I can't speak to the plausibility of this story, but it's at least striking that such collective nouns tend to be for animals rather than other sorts of things.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That is depressingly plausible. It tallies fairly well with Google books' blurb of James Lipton's book:"here are hundreds of equally pithy, and often poetic, terms unearthed by Mr. Lipton in the Books of Venery that were the constant study of anyone who aspired to the title of gentleman in the fifteenth century." It also fits with the 1883 quote the OED gives for an exaltation of larks. If true, I don't really know where this leaves the point I was making.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You are spot on about this. They are like "methinks".

    ReplyDelete