Today 26 May, I was browsing a catalogue of the latest in gorgeous home wares and unbearably cute and clever stuff from Hard to Find. It is always a visual treat even though my husband says I could live the rest of my natural born life without any of the items featured therein. They’re things you want to have not need to have and the clever minds that put this catalogue together sure do know how to pique one’s interest in stuff that is hard to find. And interested I was when I come across a set of beautifully coloured pencils bearing collective nouns. Genius!
Collective nouns are a unique class of nouns that denotes a group of people, animals, objects, or concepts or ideas as a single entity. This is not to be confused with countable or mass nouns. My friends at Your Dictionary bring clarity to this important point .
They share the following: countable nouns are nouns that can be counted, modified by a number or quantified with size, amount, or value related words, and can appear in both singular and plural form. Mass nouns, also referred to as non-count nouns, signify unbounded amounts, such as liquid, small objects, and abstract or immeasurable concepts. For example, “water,” “rice,” and “education” can all be considered mass nouns. A noun is considered a mass noun when its use cannot be counted, modified or quantified in a relevant and logical manner linguistically. Collective nouns are considered a subset of count nouns because they refer to a group of countable nouns as a unit. For example, there are 12 eggs in dozen, and there are 52 cards in a deck.
Alright, so now we have that straight for dinner party showoff purposes, we can move onto a little collective noun history. According to The Oxford Dictionary Blog , the first collective nouns were typically for groups of animals and birds. These were known as ‘terms of venery’ or ‘nouns of assembly’, stemming from the English hunting tradition of the Late Middle Ages. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, and an unkindness of ravens hark back to the fifteenth century. The etymologist Michael Quinion noted the first collection of collective nouns in English appeared in The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 on the subjects of hawking, hunting (venery being an archaic word for hunting) and heraldry. In the sixteenth century, the book was reprinted many times over keeping the lists of birds and animals in the public eye. Many of those listed nouns are still in use today.
A pandemonium of parrots, a smack of jellyfish, a seething of eels, an implausibility of gnus, an intrusion of cockroaches (think I have one of those at my beach house), a rhumba of rattlesnakes or a clew of worms – the options are endless. Which got me to thinking two things. 1. What is the collective noun for a collection of nouns and 2. Who gets to decide new collective nouns?
To the former question I refer you to the debate at wordsmith.org which became just a little cerebral for me without any definitive outcome. To the later, I default to the Oxford Dictionary who say that 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 (and thus collective nouns) should evolve. They say that 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’.
English, then, evolves organically and collective nouns are no exception – new versions of the old collective nouns continue to emerge, and popular culture creates collective nouns for brand new things. From a fabulous article on collective nouns of today comes a shallow of Kardashians, a validation of selfies, a smug of Pruises and a Hillary of pantsuits. The bloggers have even got serious and bestowed upon themselves the term a click of bloggers.
So in keeping with the collective noun theme, I am going for a dazzle of gold leaf dragonflies on the cotton paper of today’s wrap. There is some debate about the collective noun for a group of dragonflies but the most intriguing description I have found comes from the beautifully written blog The Night Planted Orchard which explains:
The collective noun for dragonflies is a cluster, which is just plain wrong. Some say flight, others a dazzle. They reminded me of the helicopters in Apocalypse now, coming in from the sea, and from there valykries flitting here and there over the battlefield, this way and that, plucking souls.
A valkyr of dragonflies. Now that fits.
I’ve teamed my dragon flies with a big gold ribbon. I tried a lesser ribbon – such as the thin pink ribbon in the photograph – but only the big gold did the strong pink of the wrap justice. I am seriously motivated now to create my own collective noun for a group of gift wrappers, but I think the idea needs to lay on the wrapping table for a while. All suggestions gratefully accepted.