This is for word lovers and the curious among you. You’ve heard of a plague of locusts, a school of fish, a mountain of debt, a hill of beans, a herd of elephants, a can of worms, and a litter of pups.
What about a line of palmists, an army of caterpillars, a shock of corn, a college of cardinals, and a tissue of lies? Mitt Romney’s classic was “a prairie fire of debt”, and President Obama’s counter was “a cowpie of distortion.”
These are group names that have no common name! They are sometimes known as nouns of multitude, nouns of assemblage, collective nouns, and terms of venery. You can find most of these in a fascinating book —An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton. Thank you, June Lantz for gifting me with this book some years ago. It is a treasure.
Some of these venereal terms stir up controversy. Many scholars disagree on the Latin root, ven, which, according to etymologist Eric Partridge, originates with Venus– to love, desire, pursue. These terms have logical explanations such as a dule of doves which Lipton describes as “a corruption of the French word “deuil” or mourning because “the soft, sad, ululation of the dove has always evoked a sense of mourning.”
Following is list of some of these nouns of assemblage, (including side notes) that we don’t hear very often. I’m breaking my own rules in the interest of brevity, so don’t start in on me if some of the following contains incomplete sentences.
BTW, Lipton gets all the credit for these.
Charge of Shoppers- Retailers wish there were more of them.
Kindle of kittens. To kindle literally means “to give birth.” The words, kin, kindred and Kinder (German) are associated with the word kindlen of Middle English (ME )origin.
Rag of colts. Lot of controversy about this one. May be about rage or Old Norse rögg, from which we get “rug.” But it could be about the word “rack” which is used to identify one of the gaits of a horse.
Bevy of Roebucks. A roe is a type of male deer.
Tabernacle of bakers: Good one. Quoting Lipton here: “The law decreed that no baker shall sell bread before his oven…in the market of the King.” Lipton presumes this was to ensure the King got his fair share, so the bread was sold in public stalls called tabernacula.
A glorifying of liars: Lipton says the term can also apply to today’s public relations and marketing professionals. The term comes from the French “se glorifier” referring to “vaunt, brag or boast of one’s acts.”
Some nouns of multitude referring to people, places and things are obvious, some not, and some obsolete, xenophobic and prejudicial in nature. Also, some are obviously coined earlier or later than others.
A pound of Englishmen– Jolly good.
A pint of Irishmen- An obvious reference to libation.
A fifth of Scots– Ditto, but is it Johnnie Walker Red or Black label? BTW, JW is the most widely distributed brand of Scotch whiskey.
A boom of Germans – Definitely a military reference.
A glasnost of Russians -Glasnost is defined as “a policy of openly and frankly discussing economic and political realities initiated under Mikhail Gorbachev
An outback of Aussies- My Australian friends say they prefer the full proper name and do not ever confuse and Australian with a New Zealander. Awkward.
A wave of Hawaiians– Surf’s up, bra!Aloha and mahalo! But not everyone surfs or swims so I’m updating this one to a shaka of Hawaiians. It’s a friendly hand signal that means “Hang posse” and it is not to be confused with hook-em horns. Fold your three middle fingers and extend the thumb and little finger.
An ohm of electricians– This is perfect since an “ohm” is the standard unit of electrical resistance, named after German physicist, G.S. Ohm.
A flush of plumbers -Makes sense even though it would be more alliterative to call them a plunger of plumbers.
An inertia of janitors– The janitors’ union may not like this since inertia refers to sluggishness and inactivity. Since a number of educational facilities are using students to take out trash, perhaps it should be “student body of janitors”
A drip of housepainters– Probably should be updated to a Glidden or a Behr for product placement.
A nosegay of florists – I am updating to an FTP of florists.
A lot of realtors – This is interesting since the original referred to a measure of land and today we have an (overflowing) number of realtors
A truculence of moving men– This one is odd since truculent means “fierce, savage, harsh, scathing.” That’s not how I would personally describe moving men but they do, of course, use trucks.
A guess of futurists – I’m guessing this one applies to most of today’s TV journalists who speculate and opine but hardly deliver solid news anymore.
A trine of astrologists – A “trine” is a configuration of planets in astrological charts but it’s not very common.
A flow of Californians – The folks who live in Oregon will get this one. Oregonians are trying to pass a law to limit the number of rich Californians who are moving to Oregon and raising property values, which, of course, raises taxes.
A bask of Floridians- Could also apply to any tropical area.
A mush of Alaskans– On you huskies! (I won’t mention the most famous Alaskan we know; that would just be too mush.)
A shortage of midgets – Ouch. The little people may object but at least it should be updated to a “paucity” of little people.
A line of palmists – Referring to life line, heart line, etc.
There are thousands more like this. Send me comments on your most clever nouns of multitude and I will post them here and on Twitter @morricles. Be sure to subscribe to The Claireifyer Weekly too! And thank you for your support.