Monday, November 10, 2008

A conglomerate of collective nouns

click photo to enlarge
What has one of the first successful women authors to do with this flock of gulls? More than you might imagine!

Dame Juliana Barnes, sometimes spelt Berners or Bernes, is traditionally supposed to have been the prioress of the nunnery of Sopwell near St Albans. In 1486 her treatise on hunting was published in the "Book of St Albans". Despite the fact that it was printed with worn out type discarded by William Caxton it proved very popular. A later edition that included her "Treatyse on Fysshinge with an Angle" sold even more copies, and the book was in and out of print until the nineteenth century. Included in this work was a long list of collective nouns for animals. Some of them were those used widely at the time: others were Dame Juliana's own poetic, and often very fanciful inventions. Because they appeared in a book that had a wide readership for such a long time all these collective nouns went into general circulation. Consequently, whilst we are likely to know (as the fifteenth century did) a gaggle of geese, a flock of seagulls, and a pack of wolves, now, due to Dame Julianas efforts, we also recognise "a murmuration of starlings", a "charm of goldfinches" and "a murder of crows". Some, such as a "shrewdness of apes" and "a cete of badgers" do, thankfully, seem to have fallen by the wayside. If you look up the collective noun for seagulls you will find, besides "flock", the word "screech". Where did that come from I wonder? Was it one of Dame Juliana's constructions, or did someone invent it at a later date following the principles that she used when coining her own nouns of assembly?

I spotted this flock of gulls following a tractor that was ploughing a field near Bicker in Lincolnshire. Later, as I looked at the photograph on my computer, and reflected on the words we use for groups of animals I wondered if any bright spark had come up with a collective noun for tractors. A quick "Google" found others wondering the same and suggesting "a Massey" and "a traction". Neither will do for me, but I can't come up with anything better. Can you?

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 150mm (300mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/100
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On