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A collective conundrum

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By Jackie Beedie


I was at a trivia quiz the other night. One of the questions was “what is the collective noun for a group of toads”? The answer was a knot of toads. How strange I thought. It did not make any sense to me unless someone once upon a time looked at a bunch of toads and thought they looked like a rope with a knot in it.

This got me thinking about other strange collective nouns and how on earth they came into being. A bike of bees: not too strange as bike is an old English word meaning colony, nest or swarm. A rhumba of rattlesnakes. Apparently their slow weaving followed by fast strikes resembles the slow quick quick pattern of the dance. A crash of rhinoceroses and a prickle of porcupines are self explanatory but why are a group of ravens called an unkindness and a group of crows called a murder?

I was going to continue this by inventing some witty collective nouns for groups of people in certain professions but once I did some research I discovered that the accepted terms are far wittier than I could have come up with. You can have an entrance of actresses, a pratfall of clowns and a rash of dermatologists. A pound of English and a clan of Scots are not very funny but what about a pint of Irish. That’s somehow quite appropriate but not as much as the term for gynaecologists which is a smear. My two favourites are a lie of politicians and an unhappiness of husbands which are true descriptions rather than collective nouns.

The English language is a strange creature. If we transport something by car it’s called a shipment, but if we send it by ship it’s called a cargo. We pack suits into a garment bag, but garments into a suitcase. Your nose runs and your feet smell.

These examples pale into significance when you start to hear the names of grammatical structures. I can just get my head around the fact that all, many and numerous are called quantifiers and that mine, yours and hers are called possessives, but I have never heard of determiners which are the and a or demonstratives which are this and that. And what on earth is a declension?

I am a native English speaker, or as much as a Scot can be, and I was taught English grammar at school. I even got an O’level and an A’ level in it, and would have been happy to live my life out in complete ignorance of the official names of the structures I use in my everyday speech and writing. But I had to come and live abroad where I encounter on a daily basis people for whom English is not their native language and who were taught it as a second language with all these structures, and what they were called before actually learning what the words mean. I am often told by one or other of these people that my preposition is stranded or my infinitive is split and I think they have reverted to their native language because I don’t understand a word of it. I do understand however when my editor tells me that my sentences are too long. But that’s just a style thing, or laziness, take your pick.

Lastly to go back to collective nouns, here’s one for my good friend Seumas, a group of writers is called a ‘worship’.

Jackie@JBeedie.com

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