Thursday, 21 July 2011

A bloat of hippopotamuses

"You haven't posted anything recently." Apparently my mother doesn't think the pressing matter of 100000 words to be written for my thesis is much of an excuse. And luckily while in the car this lunchtime the return of Radio 4's Questions Questions gave me a subject to pontificate on.

One of their listeners had rung up to ask about the source of the strange collective nouns for birds (a 'descent' of woodpeckers, for example). Tracked to the British Library, the Boke of St Albans, printed in 1486, had a compendium of collective nouns, including the skulk of foxes and the rather delightful 'rascal of boys'. The consensus seems to be that the author was making them up as he went along, and so whoever wrote the Boke, came up with most of the weird ones we still use today, and some that we don't. A 'knee of pheasants' anyone? Apparently related to the Norman French for 'nest'.

Interestingly the modern 'deceit of lapwings' was recorded in the Boke as a 'desert of lapwings' - apparently referring to the lapwing's habit of leaving its nest when it spots a predator, and feigning an injury some distance away to decoy the predator away from its chicks. At some point a misunderstanding of the etymology of 'desert' as coming from 'to desert' transferred the phrase to one which refers to the trick the lapwing is playing.

This all turned out to be strikingly relevant to the thoughts I'd been having at the weekend. Lying in bed, awake at 4am because of the (extremely loud) peacocks who live at Ellingham Hall, where I was staying for the wedding of my lovely friends David and Felicity, I was contemplating transferring the noun 'murder' from crows to peacocks. But on reflection, I think a 'throttle' of peacocks* is closer to the action that was crossing my mind.

* Of course, the Boke got there first. A 'muster' of peacocks is the canonical term, although there's a rival faction promoting 'an ostentation.'

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