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Precision of Lexicographers

People often write in about the conventional terms for groups of animals and people, especially birds, such as parliament of rooks or murder of crows. Many of these, including tiding of magpies, murmuration of starlings, unkindness of ravens, and exaltation of larks, are poetic inventions that one can trace back to the fifteenth century.

The first collection in English is The Book of St Albans of 1486, an early printed work from a small press at St Albans that used worn-out type that had been discarded by William Caxton. The book is in three parts, on hawking, hunting and heraldry, and is almost certainly a compilation of earlier works, probably written originally in French. The part on hunting is inscribed with the name of Dame Juliana Barnes, who is traditionally supposed to have been prioress of the nunnery of Sopwell near St Albans, though almost nothing is known about her (and her name might have been Berners, or Bernes).

What is certain is that the book became hugely popular. It was reprinted at Westminster the same year by the famous Wynkyn de Worde. In this version an extra section appeared with the title Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle, that is, angling or rod fishing. In the sixteenth century the book was reprinted so many times that it is hard to keep track of the editions. It has been said that its “circulation for a long time vied with and perhaps exceeded that of every other contemporary production of the press of lesser eminence than Holy Writ”.

This popularity kept the lists of terms for beasts and birds in people’s minds. Their memory was perpetuated in later centuries by antiquarians such as Joseph Strutt, whose Sports and Pastimes of England was published in 1801. Though some of Dame Juliana’s terms, such as business of ferrets, fall of woodcocks, and shrewdness of apes are wonderful to read and have a certain resonance, nobody seems to have used them in real life (and some are now mysterious, such as cete of badgers or dopping of sheldrake, because we no longer have the vocabulary to appreciate them).

Many that refer to natural history have some basis in animal behaviour. A parliament of rooks derives from the way the birds noisily congregate in their nests in tall trees; an exaltation of larks is a poetic comment on the climb of the skylark high into the sky while uttering its twittering song; a murmuration of starlings is a muted way to describe the chattering of a group of those birds as they come into roost each evening; unkindness of ravens refers to an old legend that ravens push their young out of the nest to survive as best they can; a spring of teal is an apt description of the way they bound from their nests when disturbed.

Some are witty comments on daily life, such as drunkship of cobblers and eloquence of lawyers. A few are apparently self-mocking, like superfluity of nuns (though the saying probably pre-dates any link with the semi-mythical Dame Juliana). This gently humorous approach has continued down the years, and updated examples frequently emerge from the fruitful imaginations of jokesters even today, such as intrigue of politicians, tedium of golfers, addition of mathematicians, expense of consultants, or clutch of car mechanics. Type “collective nouns” into any Web search engine: you’ll find dozens of sites featuring them, though the level of wit is sadly variable.

Here’s an ancient joke on the subject: Four scholars at Oxford were making their way down the street, and happened to see a group of ladies of the evening. “What’s this?” said the first. “A jam of tarts?” “Nay,” said the second, “an essay of Trollope’s.” “Rather, a flourish of strumpets,” advanced the third. “No, gentlemen,” concluded the last. “Here we have an anthology of pros.”

We’ve got to make a distinction, of course, between these fanciful or poetic collective names and the many examples we use every day, like pride of lions, pack of dogs, flight of stairs, flock of birds, string of racehorses, and gaggle of geese. These are common and unremarkable, though in some cases hardly less exotic and mysterious in origin than any in The Book of St Albans all those years ago.

[For a modern work, see An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton, published by Penguin Books. I found it disappointing, as it couples too many illustrations with too few words, but it is well-known and popular.]

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Page created 29 Dec 2001