Friday, 27 March 2015

Smack of Jellyfish: The History of Collective Nouns

Last week at work, a co-worker originally from Vietnam asked me, "I don't get it. I get why in English you have groupings: Collective nouns, like a flock of seagulls. But a murder of crows? A pack of hounds? Who came up with this crap?"

It was the 1980s, a lot of crap was flying around. But I liked A Flock of Seagulls...just not the hair.

I'm inclined to agree with the crap part. English is weird enough without all the superlatives. Thanks to the BBC History Magazine, we can blame the bored people in the 1400s. Many were first recorded in the 15th century in publications known as Books of Courtesy: manuals on the various aspects of noble living, designed to prevent young aristocrats from embarrassing themselves by saying the wrong thing at court.

The earliest of these documents to survive to the present day was The Egerton Manuscript, dating from around 1450, which featured a list of 106 collective nouns. Several other manuscripts followed, the most influential of which appeared in 1486 in The Book of St Albans – a treatise on hunting, hawking and heraldry, written mostly in verse and attributed to the nun Dame Juliana Barnes (sometimes written Berners), prioress of the Priory of St Mary of Sopwell, near the town of St Albans. This list features 164 collective nouns, beginning with those describing the ‘beasts of the chase’, but extending to include a wide range of animals and birds.

According to the Oxford dictionary, most are fanciful or humorous terms which probably never had any real currency, but have been taken up by antiquarian writers, notably Joseph Strutt in Sports and Pastimes of England (1801).

Some of my favorites:

a blush of boys
a bevy of ladies
a faith of merchants
a pity of prisoners
a clowder or glaring of cats
a herd of cranes
a busyness of ferrets
a fluther or smack or jellyfish
a watch of nightingales
an unkindness of ravens
a drift of wild pigs
a zeal of zebras
A cute clowder of cats! Mew!

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Kiss Me We're All Irish: St. Paddy's Day

At the Montreal Parade, because there's a lot of Leprechauns there...

Happy Green Beer day everyone! Many Canadians and Americans, regardless of their heritage, will be out celebrating Saint Patrick’s day. Modern festivities include Irish and Celtic music, lots of food, and lots of beer. While this is the tradition in Canada, the saint’s day was originally a day of prayer.

Someone actually made a St. Patrick crochet doll. Where's the snakes?
For centuries, St. Patrick’s day was celebrated as a holy day. St. Patrick was a Roman-British priest that brought Christianity to Ireland. He also is credited with driving all the snakes out of Ireland, but we know where they all went (looking at you, England). He is said to have died on 17 March 461 AD. His popularity in Ireland grew to being named the country’s patron saint. By the 900s, the Irish celebrated his memory by attending church and holding feasts. It was made a recognized Catholic feast day in the 1600s. It falls during the Christian season of Lent, and Lent’s tight prohibitions against the eating of meat were released. After attending mass, people would dance, drink and enjoy the traditional meal of corned beef (Irish bacon and just awesome) and cabbage.

One big part of modern celebrations is massive parades. The first one was not in Ireland, but was held in America, on March 17, 1762. Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched in New Amsterdam (New York), were trying to keep their own culture alive in this new country. New York City became a major centre for Irish Diaspora, and the parades continued and spread to all parts of North America. More than one hundred parades are now held, and have expanded into Irish festivals such as the Irish Association of Manitoba three-day festival of culture in the week of St Patrick's Day.

At the Boston Parade: "Bloody hell, Bobby! That ain't St. Nick - he just gave us a bag of snakes!"

Another tradition is to wear green on the day of; it is said that St. Patrick taught the Irish about the trinity (Father, son and the holy spirit) by using a clover. This may be where the North American tradition of wearing green and clovers came from. However, the color was long considered to be unlucky in Ireland. Irish folklore holds that green is the favorite color of the fairies. In modern celebrations, however, the Irish use the clover green in celebrations.

The more modern drinking aspect of St. Patrick’s day happened in North America, not Ireland, until very recently. Up until the 1970s, St. Patrick’s was seen as a holy day only and pubs were closed. When that rule was lifted, more people went back to the tradition of feast and lifting a few drinks. A major St. Patrick’s festival is held in Dublin to bring tourists and locals together to celebrate Irish culture. So as my Great-grandad would have said: sláinte! (Cheers and get wasted)

Irish whiskey Irish dancing Shamrocks Book of Kells Uilleann pipes ...
Whiskey, music, dancing, rugby with an edge of cool castles: these are my kind of people. Could do without the Bono though.