Sunday, 3 August 2014

Weird and Wonderful Collective Nouns

At the weekend I attended a monthly quiz at one of my local pubs. During the quiz there was a question: ‘what do you call a group of women?’ The concept of giving a collective noun to people was a new concept to me. I knew they were used for animals but not people. So this blog post is all about weird and wonderful collective nouns for people and professions (I had a smile and a giggle at some of them!). If you walked into a bar, you may see…

A faculty of academics.
A conflagration of arsonists.
A tabernacle of bakers.
A babble of barbers.
A promise of barmen.
A wiggery of barristers.
A shower of bastards.
A squad of beauties.
A rascal/plush of boys.
A band of brothers.
A shuffle of bureaucrats.
A sneer of butlers.
A goring of butchers.
A pound of carpenters.
A brood of chess players.
A pratfall of clowns.
A riot/gaggle of comedians.
A cavvy/saunter of cowboys.
A shrivel of critics.
A tantrum of decorators.
An amalgam/brace of dentists.
A rash of dermatologists.
A fagot of drummers.
A pound of Englishmen.
A prance of equestrians.
A grumble/sulk of fishermen.
A talent of gamblers.
A gross of Germans.
A gaggle of girls.
A tedium of golfers.
A slither of gossip columnists.
A conjunction of grammarians.
A nag/wisdom of grandparents.
A smear of gynaecologists.
A swish of hairdressers.
A herd of harlots.
A melody of harpists.
A debauchery of hedonists.
An ensemble of homosexuals.
An unhappiness of husbands.
A pint of Irishmen.
An explosion of Italians.
A wheeze of joggers.
A bevy of ladies.
A tough of lesbians.
A pink of liberals.
A band of men.
A mutter of mother-in-laws.
A jungle of Nazis.
A squeal of nieces.
A freeze of northerners.
A lie/odium of politicians.
A twaddle of public speakers.
A billow of smokers.
A bed of swingers.
A quiz of teachers.
A grunt of teenagers.
A sprig of vegetarians.
An impatience of wives.
A gaggle of women.
A crunch of wrestlers.
A worship of writers.

But it’s the soldiers and lawyers who have the most collective nouns:

Soldiers – army, brigade, company, division, platoon, muster, troop.
Lawyers – disputation, eloquence, escheat, greed, huddle, quarrel.

So it seems collective nouns for people and professions are closely linked, hilarious and, in some cases perhaps, quite apt. 

Blue for a girl, and pink for...erm...a boy? The history of the word 'Pink'

This blog post is all about the word ‘pink’. Even short, simple words in English have a backstory, as you know if you have read my posts on Nice and Okay. Likewise, ‘pink’ has a fruitful word history: it started as a verb, moved to being a noun, and then an adjective as we know it today.
The word ‘pink’ started in the 1590s as a verb (‘to pink’) which meant to make a small cut in something. This is where the name for pinking shears comes from – scissors that have a zigzagged edge.

 It was the Dutch who associated pinck oogen (small eyes) with the delicate flowers of the Dianthus (also known as the Carnation). Interestingly, just as the pinking shears may create a ragged edge on fabrics, the petals of the Dianthus are also crimped and look perforated. It was the liking of pink with flowers which inspired the word’s next set of meanings: perfection, symbolised by a pink carnation. Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet states ‘Nay, I am the very pink of curtesie’.

The first time ‘pink’ was used as an adjective was in the 1680s and in Elizabethan England, pink garments were the fashion for both sexes. Sumptuary Laws, which determined the color of clothing people wore by their social status, made pink available to both the upper and lower classes and spread the colour’s influence on the public.

Jumping further forward, it was in the 1920s when pink started to be used as a marketing tool for children – not for girls, but boys. This was because pink was seen as a colour that was full of energy, yet not a full powerful red associated with full maturity. In contrast, a pale, soft blue was marketed toward girls because it was associated with the Virgin Mary. It was after the Second World War when blue and pink switched – blue for boys, pink for girls. 

Ever been told ‘Orange’, ‘Silver’ and ‘Purple’ don’t rhyme with anything?

The word ‘rhyme’ comes from Old French ‘rime’ or ‘ryme’, possibly derived from the Germanic ‘rim’ meaning a series or sequence. Recently, a well-known internet blog posted a list of words that do not have rhymes in modern English. That list was:


[* see below]

However, it may not be as simple as that. In fact, to say all the above words are without a rhyme is  an untruth. Some of them do have rhymes, yet their rhyming partners may be vastly unknown. So here are some of the words with a rhyming partner:

Orange > Blorenge (a hill in Wales)
Silver > ‘chilver’ (a female lamb). Still common in southern dialects and present in the full OED but not evidenced since 1883 (thanks to Mike for researching!).
Purple > ‘curple’ (hindquarters of a horse or donkey), ‘hirple’ (to walk with a limp), ‘nurple’ (the act of roughly twisting a nipple)
Width > ‘sidth’ (a length of something, especially something that drapes or trails).

Obviously, these rhyming words are uncommon. Nevertheless, they do exist. So next time you get a Christmas cracker declaring some words do not have rhymes, you will know otherwise!

What is a 'gorm' and how can you be 'gormless'?

If we think of words that have '-less' as a suffix, it is usually easy to fathom what you are without. For example, if you are 'tactless' you are without tact and if you are 'useless' you are without use, and so on. But what about 'gormless'? 

'Gorm' comes from an old Scottish word 'gaum' meaning attention or notice. Therefore, someone who doesn't pay you or something enough attention or take adequate notice is described as 'gormless'. 

And as an afterthought, the 'feck' in feckless has a similar story. If you are 'feckless', it means you may lack initiative or have a character flaw. Similarly, 'feck' derives from 'fek', again Scottish for 'effect'. 'Fek' to the Scots can mean 'value', 'return' and 'amount'. Simply, if you are accused of being 'feckless', it means you have been accused of being without worth or value. 

In this light, 'feckless' has a definition that makes the word sound more of a stinging attack on someone than possibly intended. 

Why do we have a silent K at the start of some words?

There are many words in English that begin with an unpronounced letter K. For example, ‘knee’, ‘knead’, ‘knife’ and ‘knight’ to name four. But why is there an unpronounced  letter at the start of these words? Are they there to make English difficult? Are they there to confuse non-native speakers and learners of English? Or do they shine a light back into the past?

Well, the answer is very much the latter. Spelling is much slower to catch up with pronunciation. Not so long ago, people would have pronounced the K at the start of these words. It would have been commonplace to hear people talking of k-nights, k-nifes and their k-nees. As the change in pronunciation is relatively recent, spelling has yet to catch up with pronunciation. As a result, it is very likely that in 50-100 years, we will no longer place a ‘K’ at the start of these words, making it redundant. As English is shaped by usage, if we all spelt these words without the K immediately, chances are we’d be cutting vegetables with ‘nifes’, scraping our ‘nees’ and reading about the ‘nights’ of the round table much sooner than that.