Friday, July 20, 2012

A gaggle of nouns

A deer stopping for water in the 90 degree heat
Where: Winooski River (still). Zac and I just got back from another paddling adventure to complete my last trip from Bolton to Salmon Hole, this week from Salmon to Skinny Pancake. Another perfect day of paddling!

An outburst of water striders
Other notes: This time of year has the most overlap across life stages for animals. You may have noticed not just one crow perusing the lawn for food, but a mini-flock of 4 or 5, or a sudden flush of 30 robins sweeping through a honey suckle thicket. As nesting season winds its way down (com on goldfinches, hurry up and finish nesting already), lots of family groups are out and about feeding, the males are less territorial trading the stress of land disputes for the comfort of extra sets of eyes to be vigilant. It was hard enough on the trip to identify the many different species of birds, flowers, and trees I was passing by. Throw into the mix the different names for males, females, juveniles, and even collective nouns, and I was a bit over my head trying to keep it all straight. I got curious about what the different names for groups of different animals might be (and is there a term for a herd of cottonwoods? a "stand" is so boring, "grove" gets better, but there's a whole world of opportunity here).

A scuttling of mergansersA motoring of ducklings
A ring of ring-bills A dastardly of F-16s
I've long been fascinated by names and the naming of things. I was first introduced to the quirks of latin names by my love of gray squirrels, and indeed Sciurus carolinensis was the first scientific name I learned. Turns out Sciurus derives from the Greek words skia (shade) and uros (tail). The Greeks must have thought that squirrels their tails much like one might find respite from summer heat under the cover of a parasol. They were wrong, but thanks to the convention of naming things, their error is preserved in our scientific lexicon.

A flapping of kingfishers

Contemporary naturalists seem to have a certain fondness for collective nouns used to describe groups of animals. Being able to call a flock of crows a murder, starlings a murmuration, or vultures a committee is a sure sign of esoteric adeptness when it comes to being naturalist. It's like the painfully obvious difference (to those in the know) between a tourist ("Bar" for Barre, "Shar-let" for Charlotte) from a Vermonter ("Bare-ee", "Shar-lot"). There is delight, beyond proving ones worth in the often ridiculous and colorful phrases. Some are probably grounded in some sense of the animal's natural history, while others, it appears, are from the fanciful imagination of the 15th century British author Dame Juliana Berners, or at least were first recorded by her. She was the prioress of a nunnery, where she kept up her passion and dedication to fishing, hunting, and other outdoor pursuits. Her book, The Boke of St Albans, is damn near impossible to read (much like Canterbury Tales). It includes three sections - on falconry, hunting, and heraldry. In her section on hunting she publishes a lengthy list (3 pages worth!!) of collective nouns. The most famous to make it from her pen to our vernacular is murder of crows, but the rest are just as inventive.

A lonesome of bald eagle
It might be easy to chalk the lengthy list up to the poetic musings of one more skilled in writing than shooting, but I think Berners, like other hunters, had stories that got bigger and bigger with time: "I once caught a fish th-------------------------is big." I imagine that sport hunting was a hobby for the finer and fancier of folks, a well-educated bunch that would lounge around the hearth in their parlors recounting hunting tales from days of yore. "If you think today was good, you should've been here yesterday, we caught a suit of mallards, a muster of peacocks, a covey of partridges, and a bevy of girls."

A hawking of kingbirds
Language reflects what's important to the culture that uses it. Thus, the Yup'ik Eskimos, for example, use the word kanevvluk for fine snow particles, natquik for drifting snow, aniu for snow on the ground, and have other distinct lexemes (like a root word) for variations of snow. So if your culture values hunting and the pride that comes with it you might expect a distinct lexicon to accompany it, much like any subculture develops its own language to describe shredding the gnar, sick pow-pow, etc.

An awkwardness of herons
Since her writing, many more collective nouns have sprung up, some useful and serious, others amusing and useless (a clutch of auto mechanics). In the captions for each picture, I've thrown my hat into the ring, vying for a few new collective nouns.

A flotsam of jetsam
As a side note, the publishing of Boke of St Albans made Berner the first published woman in England.

Berner's list of collective nouns in its original format

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