Tag Archives: noun

A flock of nouns of multitude

The answer to my previous post, “A singular quiz”, is that they’re all collective nouns, or nouns of multitude, and specifically terms of venery.

We’re familiar with the phrases “a flock of sheep” and “a pride of lions”, and similar collective nouns specific to certain groups or types of people, such as a “company of actors”, a “troupe of dancers”, a “class of students”, a “platoon of soldiers”, an “orchestra of musicians”, and even a “bevy of beauties”. The terms of venery — such words that refer to animals — can be especially poetic and descriptive, and below is Wikipedia’s explanation for their fascinating collective history and etymology (along with a list of my personal and most poetic favorites, which is by no means exhaustive). Also below is a list of my favorite flavory collective nouns used to describe certain professions or subsets of society, two of which need to be singled out for special attention: a “conjunction of grammarians” and a “shrivel of critics”. Whoever dreamed up those particular terms of venery must be the very epitome of style and wit. As a matter of fact, we do know the author of at least one of them, as explained in the next paragraph. It’s noted in Wiki’s explanation that these terms, even when they were first coined, never really had any practical application: they were “intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication.” How lucky for all writers and poets (and even for us readers) that they persist in our lexicon today — some of them surprisingly so. The fact that a “gaggle” is still used to describe not just a flock of geese but also a collection of women (usually of the giggling or talkative kind) is interesting in these days of post-feminism and political correctness; this term was one of the many deliberately humorous words listed in the Book of Saint Albans, published in 1486.

James Lipton, best known to us as the creator and host of the American TV show Inside the Actors Studio, is — among many other things — a great lover of words. (Indeed, one of his favorite moments of his show — and definitely one of mine — is when he asks his actor subjects for mostly single-word answers to his questionnaire: favorite curse word? favorite and least favorite sounds? etc.) Lipton has a special interest in collective nouns, and he has published a definitive, best-selling book on the subject: An Exaltation of Larks (1968). Lipton has even invented some of his own nouns of multitude, including a “score of bachelors”, an “unction of undertakers”, a “shrivel of critics” (it had to come from an actor or some kind of performing artist), and a “queue of actors”.

Let’s not bore ourselves here (except to single out the lovely expression “a singular of boars”) with the questions and complexities of which verb forms (singular or plural) should be used with these collective nouns. Suffice to say the Brits and the Yanks diverge in their usage: in British English, collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms, depending on the context and something called the “implied metonymic shift”. It is perfectly acceptable in England to say “the class have finished their homework” (especially if all the students in the class had the same homework). However, in American English, collective nouns take singular verb forms: “the class has finished its homework”. This matter was discussed in an earlier Glossophilia blog post: https://glossophilia.org/?p=156

Some of my favorite nouns of assembly (for professions or groups of people):

– A tabernacle of bakers
– A shuffle of bureaucrats
– A hastiness of cooks
– A shrivel of critics
– A decanter of deans
– An obstruction of dons
– A galaxy of governesses
– A conjunction of grammarians
– A melody of harpists
– An observance of hermits
– A neverthriving of jugglers
– A superfluity of nuns
– A scolding of seamstresses
– A disguising of tailors
– A prudence of vicars
– An ambush of widows

Some of my favorite terms of venery:

– A shrewdness of apes
– A pace of asses
– A cete of badgers
– A sloth or sleuth of bears
– A singular of boars
– An obstinacy of buffalo
– A clowder or pounce of cats
– An intrusion of cockroaches
– A rag of colts
– A murder of crows
– A cowardice of curs
– A pitying of doves
– A business of ferrets
– A charm of finches
– A leash or skulk of fox
– A tower of giraffes
– An implausibility of gnus
– A trip of goats
– A down or husk of hares
– A bloat of hippopotamuses
– A cry or mute of hounds
– A cackle of hyenas
– An intrigue of kittens
– A deceit of lapwings
– An exaltation of larks
– A leap of leopards
– A pride of lions
– A labor of moles
– A span or barren of mules
– A richness of martens
– A romp of otters
– A parliament of owls
– An aurora of polar bears
– A prickle of porcupines
– An unkindness of ravens
– A crash of rhinoceroses
– A shiver of sharks
– A scurry of squirrels
– An affliction of starlings
– A streak of tigers
– A knot of toads
– A gam of whales
– A business of weasels


Wikipedia on the history of nouns of assembly:

The tradition of using “terms of venery” or “nouns of assembly” — collective nouns that are specific to certain kinds of animals — stems from an English hunting tradition of the late Middle Ages. The fashion of a consciously developed hunting language came to England from France. It is marked by an extensive proliferation of specialist vocabulary, applying different names to the same feature in different animals. These elements can be shown to have already been part of French and English hunting terminology by the beginning of the 14th century. In the course of the 14th century, it became a courtly fashion to extend the vocabulary, and by the 15th century, this tendency had reached exaggerated proportions. The Venerie of Twiti (early 14th century) distinguished three types of droppings of animals, and three different terms for herds of animals. Gaston Phoebus (14th c.) had five terms for droppings of animals, which were extended to seven in the Master of the Game (early 15th century). The focus on collective terms for groups of animals emerges in the later 15th century. Thus, a list of collective nouns in Egerton MS 1995, dated to ca. 1452 under the heading of termis of venery &c. extends to 70 items, and the list in the Book of Saint Albans (1486) runs to 165 items, many of which, even though introduced by the compaynys of beestys and fowlys, do not relate to venery but to human groups and professions and are clearly humorous. (a Doctryne of doctoris, a Sentence of Juges, a Fightyng of beggers, an uncredibilite of Cocoldis, a Melody of harpers, a Gagle of women, a Disworship of Scottis etc.)

The Book of Saint Albans became very popular during the 16th century and was reprinted frequently. Gervase Markham edited and commented on the list in his The Gentleman’s Academic in 1595. The book’s popularity had the effect of perpetuating many of these terms as part of the Standard English lexicon, even though they have long ceased to have any practical application. Even in their original context of medieval venery, the terms were of the nature of kennings, intended as a mark of erudition of the gentlemen able to use them correctly rather than for practical communication.The popularity of these terms in the early modern and modern period has resulted in the addition of numerous light-hearted, humorous or “facetious” collective nouns.


To premiere or not to premiere

Premier was adopted by the English language in the 18th century;  its sister, premiere, with its added feminine ‘e’ (and sometimes dressed up with her French accent – première), entered the English lexicon fashionably later than her male counterpart, probably in the late 19th century. Premier, derived from the French word meaning ‘first’, means first minister, prime minister or other head of government when used as a noun. When strutting its stuff as an adjective, it means first in status or importance, order or time (earliest).  Premiere is a noun — and at least when she made her debut in the English language she was only a noun — describing a first public presentation of a play, film, opera or other performance. There’s little or no dispute about any of these definitions (except for Fowler frowning on the use of premier as an adjective; see below*).

It’s the female form that’s had a harder time adjusting fully to life in English society. Whether and to what extent premiere should be used as a verb is what usage experts tend to grapple with, even though the word has been in use as a verb  since the 1930s. The OED does give it an official second definition as a transitive verb, “to give a premiere of”, but it stops short by not giving the verb an intransitive form, eg. “the symphony premiered in August”.

Merriam-Webster‘s Dictionary of English Usage (3rd ed.) outlines the unfolding of this verb-that’s-really-a-noun, and points out the fascinating possibility that its origins in the world of show business (where it is ubiquitous and to which its usage is still largely confined) have contributed to its lack of credibility and acceptance as a legitimate verb:

“The verb premiere is resoundingly rejected by the major usage panels, although most commentators take no notice of it and dictionaries treat it as standard. The panelists tend to regard it as jargon, in part because of its derivation from the noun premiere, which, in their opinion, makes it a noun misused as a verb, and in part because of its origins in the world of show business. It is also a fairly new word, although not as new as some might suppose.  We first encountered it in 1933, and by the 1940s it had established itself in regular use as both a transitive and intransitive verb:

” … the Paris Opera plans to premiere an old work of Jean Cocteau and Arthur Honneger” — Modern Music, November-December 1942

“The latter two houses première foreign films.” – Parker Tyler, Tomorrow, March 1945

“The night Crosby premiered” — Newsweek, 28 Oct. 1946

“….the new show premièred on June 26” — Newsweek, 2 Aug. 1948

Its use continues to be common today:

“Trollope will premiere on television in the midst of the latest squall in Anglo-American relations” — Karl E. Meyer, Saturday Rev., 22 Jan. 1977

“… when the play was premièred in 1889” — Ronald Hayman, Times Literary Supp., 28 Jan. 1983

Anyone determined to avoid it will find it has no exact synonym. Open can sometimes be used in place of the intransitive premiere, but it less strongly denotes a “first ever”[**]  public performance than does the longer word, and in many cases it is simply unidiomatic. A television program or musical composition, for example, could not be said to “open.” Open is also unidiomatic in transitive use — you could not say “The Paris Opera plans to open an old work. . . .” Of course, one may always replace premiere with a phrase, as in “… the new show was first performed on June 26” or “… Crosby performed for the first time on television…,” but the necessity of such revision seems dubious. The verb premiere may have deserved to be called “jargon” fifty years ago, but in current English it is just another available verb, and we recommend that you regard it as such.” So says Merriam-Webster.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed. Houghton Mifflin, 2006) confirms the slow and grudging acceptance of this new verb, and also notes that it has been unable to break out from its  confines in the entertainment world, where its reputation still remains murky:

“In entertainment contexts, the verb premiere has become the standard way of saying ‘to introduce to the public,’ or ‘to be introduced to the public.’ Since it seems always to imply newness, premiere is frequently used in advertising. Thus a movie can premiere in selected theaters, and a year later it can ‘premiere’ to a different audience on television. The verb first came out in the 1930s and acceptance of it in general usage has been slow. In 1969, only 14 percent of the Usage Panel accepted it. Nineteen years later, however, when asked to judge the example The Philharmonic will premiere works by two young Americans, 51 percent of the Panelists accepted this usage. But only 10 percent of the Panelists in the 1988 survey accepted the extension of the verb to contexts outside of the entertainment industry, as in Last fall the school premiered new degree programs.”


*In the first edition of his Modern English Usage (and left unrevised in his second edition), Fowler turned his nose up at the word premier used as an adjective, claiming it “is now suggestive of tawdry ornament, though it was formerly not avoided by good writers and has shown signs of coming back into favour in the wake of the now popular première. The ELEGANT-VARIATIONIST finds it useful …, but would do better to find some other way out. It is wise to confine it now to such traditional phrases as the Duke of Norfolk is premier duke and earl of the U.K.”

* * see Glossophilia https://glossophilia.org/?p=1052

He can’t drive home: he’s Brahms and Liszt!


[Warning: obscenities ahead …]

Marking Glossophilia’s 100th post, we’re celebrating the wonderful world of Cockney rhyming slang.

This clever and often amusing form of speech started in the East End of London, probably in the mid-19th century (although there are references to a specific Cockney dialect dating back to the 17th century, when regional folk traditions first began to be recorded).  The OED‘s first recorded use of Cockney language is dated 1776. It’s difficult to establish exactly how, when and why it originated – partly because it was spoken by street-traders, costermongers and working-class Londoners, but not written and recorded by scholars and academics. The slightly convoluted ‘code’ or system of the rhyming slang, which is explained below, makes the lingo difficult to understand by non-users, and there are various interesting theories about whether it evolved by accident or design, and from whom its originators sought to keep their communications secret. Some suggest that it was a language of thieves; others that it was used by traders to talk and collude with each other without customers or eavesdroppers being privy to their conversations. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two: it could have been a way for shady tradesmen to conduct their dodgy businesses without the “Old Bill” cottoning on (London’s police force was established in 1829, at roughly the same time Cockney slang began to take root; the timing might not have been coincidental). Or the local slang might have had more innocent beginnings as fun market banter that helped maintain a sense of community.

Here’s how it works: A common word (usually a noun) is replaced with a phrase of two or three words that rhymes with it, and then the rhyming part of that phrase is (usually) taken away, leaving the non-rhyming word to serve as the slang. The omission of the rhyming word is what makes this Cockney slang so hard for outsiders to decipher. Let’s take an example that’s still in common usage: butchers is slang for look. The phrase “butcher’s hook” rhymes with look, then hook is removed. Hence a Londoner will say “I’ll take a butchers” when he’s going to take a look. Another popular one is trouble, slang for wife (“trouble and strife”...).

Cockney rhyming slang is alive and well today. Fans of British TV will hear it in many programs set in London – eg. Steptoe and Son, Mind Your Language, The Sweeney, Minder, Citizen Smith, and Only Fools and Horses. And it’s rife in EastEnders, a soap opera following the lives of people who live and work in Albert Square, a fictional market square in London’s East End. Cockney slang continues to evolve – often incorporating words and names that are relevant to the time, including contemporary celebrities and personalities. For example, “Tony Blairs” is the modern rhyming slang for “flares” (as in wide-bottomed pants or trousers), but it used to be “Lionel Blairs” (Lionel Blair was a well-known actor/TV presenter in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s). A few words and phrases have been absorbed into more widespread English usage. To scarper (to flee, go, or run away) is understood widely as a British colloquialism; it comes from Scapa Flow = Go (Scapa Flow is a body of water in the Scottish Orkney Islands). As Wikipedia explains: “The use of rhyming slang has spread beyond the purely dialectal and some examples are to be found in the mainstream British English lexicon and internationally, although many users may be unaware of the origin of those words. One example is “berk”, a mild pejorative widely used across the UK and not usually considered particularly offensive, although the origin lies in a contraction of “Berkeley Hunt”,  as the rhyme for the significantly more offensive “cunt”. ”


Listen to three Londoners slinging some Cockney rhyming slang around in this colorful video shot in a London pub:

Cockney Rhyming Slang


Thanks to Fun-With-Words.com for this list of some of the most common – and amusing – examples of rhyming slang still in popular usage today.

Apples and Pairs – Stairs  – “I’m too old for those apples”

Army and Navy –  Gravy –  “Pass the army, will you?”

Bacon and Eggs –  Legs –   “She has such long bacons.”

Barnet Fair –  Hair  –  “I’m going to have my barnet cut.”

Brahms and Liszt – Pissed (BrE, as in drunk)

Bees and Honey  –  Money  –  “Hand over the bees.”

Biscuits and Cheese –  Knees  – “Ooh! What knobbly biscuits!”

Bull and Cow –  Row (as in argument) –   “We don’t have to have a bull about it.”

Butcher’s Hook  –  Look  –  “I had a butchers at it through the window.”

Cobbler’s Awls  –  Balls  –  “You’re talking cobblers!”

Crust of Bread  –  Head  – “Use your crust, lad.”

Daffadown Dilly –   Silly  –  “She’s a bit daffy.”

Hampton Wick –  Prick –  “You’re getting on my wick!”

Khyber Pass  – Arse  – “Stick that up your Khyber.”

Loaf of Bread  –  Head  –  “Think about it; use your loaf.”

Mince Pies  –  Eyes  –   “What beautiful minces.”

Oxford Scholar  –  Dollar  –  “Could you lend me an Oxford?”

Pen and Ink  –  Stink  –   “Pooh! It pens a bit in here.”

Rabbit and Pork   – Talk   – “I don’t know what she’s rabbiting about.”

Raspberry Tart   – Fart   –  “I can smell a raspberry.”

Scarpa Flow  –  Go –   “Scarpa! The police are coming!”

Trouble and Strife –   Wife   –  “The trouble’s been shopping again.”

Uncle Bert  – Shirt  –  “I’m ironing my Uncle.”

Weasel and Stoat –    Coat   – “Where’s my weasel?”


Finally, here are some gems picked especially for Glossophilia readers:

Dicky bird  – Word – “I didn’t say a dicky bird!”

Porkies / Pork pies –  Lies – “Have you been telling porkies again?”

and finally …

Septic tank  – American (Yank) –  “Last I heard, she took up with a septic.”

* and in case you’re wondering about the title of this post: Brahms and Liszt = Pissed (BrE, as in drunk)






Brand name or generic noun?

Do you know your brand names from your common nouns? Check your knowledge here …

–brought to you by mental_floss!


1. You might think you’re riding around on a Jet Ski, but if it’s not made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, it’s just a personal watercraft.

2. Bubble Wrap is probably the greatest contribution made to our society by Sealed Air Corporation, which they rightly trademarked.

3. The term Onesies, referring to infant bodysuits, is owned by Gerber Childrenswear. According to their website, the trademark is aggressively enforced. (Twosies and Funzies also belong to Gerber.)

4. Jacuzzi is not only a brand of hot tubs and bathtubs; they also make mattresses and toilets.

5. The Crockpot, a brand name for the slow cooker, was originally developed as a beanery appliance.

6. Fluffernutter is a registered trademark of the makers of Marshmallow Fluff, Durkee-Mower, Inc.

7, 8 & 9. Frisbee is currently owned by WHAM-O, but a legal battle to make this word and several others generic is underway. In 2010, Manley Toys Ltd. challenged WHAM-O, arguing that the terms Frisbee, Hula Hoop and Slip’n Slide have already become generic in the public lexicon. Personally, I think Ultimate Flying Disc sounds cooler than Ultimate Frisbee anyway.

10. Chapstick is a brand name of lip balm produced by Pfizer. In the event that you find yourself enjoying this product too much, websites dedicated to helping Chapstick addicts are available.

11. The perfect time to remind a friend or family member that Kleenex is a brand name for a tissue is right when they are desperately begging you to hand them one.

12. Ping-Pong was trademarked in 1901 as a brand of table tennis products named for the sound the ball makes when it hits the table.

13. On their website, Microsoft suggests that unless you are using their software, your PowerPoint is a “presentation graphics program.”

14. When Q-tips were originally released, they were called Baby Gays. The name was changed to Q-tips—the “Q” standing for quality—in 1926. Although they have changed hands several times since then, Unilever owns the brand today.

15. Two hockey-player brothers designed Rollerblade inline skates from a pair of old roller skates in 1979. They were the only brand of inline skates until the mid-eighties, when several other companies emerged.

16. According to legend, Scotch tape earned its name when a frustrated customer told a 3M scientist to “take it back to your Scotch bosses and tell them to put more adhesive on it.” Today, Scotch “Magic Tape” is only manufactured in one place in the world: Hutchinson, Minn.

17. The permanent marker was invented in 1956, but the Sharpie wasn’t introduced until 1964. Today, the products are almost synonymous with one another.

18. In 1899, Pearle Wait sold his recipe for Jell-O to Orator Woodward for $450. In 1902, sales for the product were around $250,000. Today, the gelatin dessert is owned by Kraft.

19. Tupperware is a brand that got its name from its creator, Earle Silas Tupper.

20. George de Mastreal invented Velcro when he discovered that burrs stuck to matted dog fur. Today, it is the world’s most prominent brand of hook and loop fasteners.

21. Weed Eater is owned by Husqvarna Outdoor Products.

22. Don’t ask BIC what’s in their line of correction fluid. The exact ingredients of Wite-out are confidential.

23. Johnson & Johnson manufactured gauze and adhesive tape separately until Earle Dickinson had the idea to combine them to create Band-Aids for his accident-prone wife.

24. The Zamboni is an ice resurfacer named after its inventor, Frank Zamboni.

25. TASER is a trademark of TASER International, and shouldn’t technically be used as a verb. To be fair, “Don’t hit me with that electroshock weapon, bro!” is probably hard to shout under duress. Bonus fact: TASER is an acronym. It stands for “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.”

26. JC wrote that Dumpster is a brand name, which is true, although the word has become largely genericized and the trademark is not widely enforced. The Dumpster got its name from the Dempster Brothers Inc., who combined their name with the word “dump” to create the Dempster Dumpster.

27. Novocain is actually the brand name of Procaine Hydrochloride owned by Hospira Inc. Thanks to H.D. for the info!

28. Thanks to Krebscy, I will never again make the mistake of offering my guests a Popsicle, a registered trademark of Unilever. Like many great things in life, the Popsicle was invented by accident. As the story goes, one winter night in 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson left a mixture of soda and water with a stick in it on his porch. Almost 20 years later, Frank began selling his creation at a lemonade stand he was running and the treat has been popular ever since.

Today, Unilever recommends that you call generic frozen pops on a stick “pops,” “ice pops” or “freezer pops”. Although, depending on where you’re from, offering someone a “pop” could get very confusing.

29. Everyone knows Post-its, a trademark of 3M, were not the invention of Romy and Michele. A very different duo is responsible—Dr. Spencer Silver invented the adhesive in 1968 and scientist Art Fry thought up a practical use for it in 1974. In 1980, Post-its were available for sale. Thanks to Ken!

30. The Ouija board was first introduced by Elijah Bond in 1890 as a practical way to communicate with spirits, making dealing with a pesky ghost much more convenient. Today, it is trademark of Hasbro Inc. Thanks to Romeo Vitelli passing this on!

31. Vic brought to our attention that Plexiglas, which got its start in World War II aircraft canopies, has since become the better-known name for acrylic glass or poly(methyl methacrylate).

32. No matter how many picnics you’ve been to or how much time you spend at the water cooler, you’ve never had a drink out of a Styrofoam cup. Expanded Polystyrene is the generic name for the material that we typically think of as Styrofoam. The brand is a trademark of the Dow Chemical Company that is made in sheaths for construction projects and is never named in the shape of a plate, cup or cooler. Thanks to Matt for the tip!

33. Geekinsight, which I hope is a family name, pointed out that Thermos is a registered trademark. Although the Thermos was invented in 1892, it wasn’t paired with a lunch box until 1953. The set, which originally featured a picture of Roy Rogers, sold more than 2 million units in the first year.

34. Robert Chesebrough invented Vaseline, now a registered trademark of Unilever, when he was 22 and he observed oil workers smearing residue from drills on their skin to heal wounds. Twenty years later, in 1880, Vaseline was selling throughout the United States at the rate of one jar a minute. Thanks for the info, Ken!

35. X-acto began in 1917 as a medical company that created syringes. Eventually, they began creating surgical scalpels that evolved into the hobby knives that we associate with X-acto. As Patrick told us, X-acto is a brand and a division of Elmer’s.

Read the full text here: http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/96072#ixzz22IJOKrHU
–brought to you by mental_floss!

5 most common nouns: the answer is in time (and not in Black Friday)

According to Wikipedia, these are the five most commonly used nouns in the English language:

  1. time
  2. person
  3. year
  4. way
  5. day

And according to the The Reading Teachers Book of Lists, the five most common nouns are:  1) word 2) time 3) number 4) way 5)  people.

Isn’t it interesting that in both cases the nouns are all abstract (with the exception of person/people, which is almost on the abstract spectrum)? And perhaps more significantly: “time” makes both lists – and is represented by three separate words in Wikipedia’s rankings (“time”, “year”, “day”).

So, for us mortals – at least for those of us who speak English – time is never far from our minds and lips. Or could it be simply that there are fewer words in the English language to describe units of time and time itself, whereas perhaps in other areas of our waking lives we have a greater vocabulary to express particular concepts?

It’s reassuring to discover that even in this world of money and materialism – when human souls are bold enough to risk their lives for a flat-screen TV – it is still time that appears to be our most  significant commodity.



The five most common nouns

Take a guess:  what do you think are the five most commonly used nouns in the English language? Not articles, pronouns, or conjunctions, but good old-fashioned nouns.

I took my own guess. At the top of my list was “home” – a place that we all spend a lot of time in, going to, and planning our lives around. My teenage daughter suggested “phone”: clearly an object that features largely in so many people’s minds these days. I wondered if “bed” — another human anchor — might be in the list:.

What do you think are the five most commonly used nouns?

Slightly surprising answers – and discussion – tomorrow… (Or, if you can’t wait until then, try Google.)