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09 Aug - Collective nouns

Who decides on the right collective noun for something?

The short answer is no one. While some languages, such as Spanish, French, and German, are ruled by committee there is no academy or governing body that decides on how English should evolve.

Indeed English has never been under the administrative rule of a language academy. A keeper of English, according to the eighteenth-century English grammarian and theologian Joseph Priestley, ‘would be unsuitable to the genius of a free nation’.

Today’s lexicographers are describers of English rather than lawmakers. The definitions they write are based on evidence from thousands of collected texts—newspapers, scholarly journals, teen magazines, text messages—and from transcriptions of the spoken word. This evidence is known in the trade as a ‘corpus’, and most modern dictionary publishers use one. Oxford University Press, the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary and a range of current English dictionaries, holds a corpus of over two billion words of real twenty-first century English.

English, then, evolves with its own momentum. Collective nouns are no exception to the rule: many have been with us for centuries, while new versions of the old are emerging all the time, as well as completely new ones when a need arises.

The first collective nouns were typically ones for groups of animals and birds. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, and an unkindness of ravens can each be traced back as far as the fifteenth century.

The etymologist Michael Quinion has noted that the first collection (not the official term) of collective nouns in English is The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry. In the sixteenth century, the book was apparently reprinted many times over, which kept the lists of birds and beasts in the public consciousness, and indeed many of the nouns are still in circulation today. Not all however: as Quinion notes, some strike a colourful chord but have never quite caught on, including a fall of woodcocks and a shrewdness of apes.

Back to the present day, and newly tried collective nouns include the tongue-in-cheek stack of librarians and a groove of DJs. No ruling body will decide upon their survival: that, like all new coinages, will be the decision of English’s vast number of users.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.

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