First, let me apologize for taking so long between blog posts.
As some of my regular readers know, a few months ago I was accidentally exposed to a John Grisham novel. Not surprisingly, I soon came down with a very bad case of the stupids.
With the love and support of my family and the assistance of the medical community I’m now feeling much better, with my doctor saying I can expect my I.Q. to eventually make a full recovery.
As my doctor also pointed out, I’m one of the lucky ones. Because my exposure took place in an airport bookstore, I could just as easily have been infected by a Danielle Steele novel, an event that is almost always fatal to the life of the mind.
But that’s in the past. Today, let’s put all of that behind us for a fun romp with collective nouns, those special words that are singular in form while denoting a collection of people, places or things.
It is accurate to say these are venereal terms because, as we learned from James Lipton, author of “An Exaltation of Larks,” the practice of creating new collective nouns largely began with “Books of Venery.” These books — written for hunters — were enormously popular among the gentle class in the 15th century.
Now isn’t that more fun than a barrel of monkeys?
By way of an example, let me point out that the U.S. Geological Survey, whose expertise clearly ranges beyond rocks, says a “barrel” is a perfectly good collective noun for describing several or more monkeys.
Some collective nouns are so common we rarely note just how nifty they are: A pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a colony of ants.
And then there are the rest, which range from delightfully odd to truly bizarre: a tower of giraffes, an exaltation of larks, a murder of crows.
And now, a few more of my favorites. To make this even more interesting (I know, is that really possible?), I’ve included some I fabricated just for this blog.
In each case you’ll find three pieces of information: First, the things or people that are collected. Second, the collective noun. And third, a sentence using the collective noun.
Here’s your challenge, should you choose to accept it:
Which collective nouns are standard English, as defined by an authoritative source such as the Oxford English Dictionary, or in a pinch, the U.S. Geological Society?
Which ones aren’t entirely legitimate, but will soon be because they are in constant use in at least one part of America?
Which ones are entirely fake?
The answers to these, and many more mysteries, await below.
1) Alligators “Congregation”
During the annual church picnic, a congregation of alligators lined the banks of the lake.
2) Parrots “Ostentation”
“I told my wife her hat was as a pretty as an ostentation of parrots. And then she slapped me.”
3) Canadians “A boot-a-boot-load”
The tour guide said she had brought a boot-a-boot-load of Canadian tourists to Port Angeles.
4) Schnapps “Schidtloten”
The nice German family next door gave us three bottles of schnapps for Christmas, explaining that they already had a schidtloten.
5) Panties “Bunch”
A bunch of panties was bunched during the library auxiliary’s board meeting.
6) Nuns “Superfluity”
A superfluity of nuns was seated in the front row of the Megadeth concert, much to the surprise of Megadeth.
7) Cobblers “Drunkship”
Imelda Marcos required a drunkship of cobblers to keep her shoes in perfect condition. She paid them in schnapps, of which it was rumored she had a schidtloten.
8) Rhinoceroses “Crash”
Our safari guide promised we would see a crash of rhinos. Fortunately, we did; unfortunately, they didn’t.
9) Methodists “Slew”
After the morning service a whole slew of Methodists showed up at the Piccadilly Cafeteria. And that, Officer, is when the big fight with the Baptists broke out.
10) Cormorants “Gulp”
A gulp of cormorants fishing the waters near Seattle provides easy targets for a boy with a BB gun.
11) Episcopalians “Wealth of”
A wealth of Episcopalians attended the soiree, which was a fundraiser for the new wing of the new wing of the hospital.
12) Sailors “Gobs”
Gobs of sailors left Singapore penniless. The sailors, not Singapore. Singapore had never been happier.
13) Heap “Troubles”
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” sang the blues guitarist. “A heap?” I asked helpfully.
14) Collard Greens “Mess”
“With all these guestesses, we gonna need a whole mess o’ greens. Maybe a mess and a half.”
15) Neighbors “Unpleasantness”
“Two neighbors is an unpleasantness, three or more is inexcusable,” I said last Saturday.
And now, the answers:
3) I made that up.
4) Pure nonsense.
5) Theoretically, several panties are a bunch. But that term isn’t an officially recognized collective noun for panties. As another note on the American way of speaking, it’s interesting to note that in the South panties aren’t bunched, but are wadded. The resulting unpleasantness is said to be much the same.
9) “Slew” is a wonderfully goofy collective noun for pretty much anything, but it isn’t specifically tied to Methodists.
11) Made up.
12) Gobs is a slang term for sailors, not a collective noun. It comes from their old habit of chewing and spitting, tobacco.
13) Commonly used in the South, but not officially recognized.
14) A mess is a volumetric measure, not a collective noun. It is defined as “enough.”
15) Unfortunately, this is not widely accepted.