A Twitter of Speechies – and other Terms of Venery

As I write this, the 2015 Irish Association for Speech and Language Therapists conference has just come to an end, and happy delegates are taking trains and boats and planes to wend their merry ways home. Some are taking an extra few days to enjoy the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of the wonderful city of Dublin, a name derived from the Old Irish dubh meaning “black” and lind meaning “pool” – a reference to a point where the rivers Poddle entered the Liffey, giving the appearance of a dark pool.

Dublin

Dublin

Sadly the Dudes were unable to take the time out to make the trip but experienced it vicariously via the magic of Twitter and the hashtag #IASLTCon. And our sole contribution to the conference was in the form of a discussion that has been vexing Speech and Language professionals for years: what do you call a group of Speechies?

Being the sort of guys who care deeply and passionately about things of no great importance (if triviology [1] were the study of trivial things, we’d be Professors) we suggested that an appropriate collective noun would be “a twitter of speechies.” This has the advantage of tying in to a word already in use with an international acceptance. In contrast, a “natter of speechies,” while being perhaps my favorite after twitter, is not as universal. The word natter, meaning “to chat aimlessly, idly, or at length” is common enough in Scotland and Northern England (from where I hail and so I know it well) turns out to be less common outside the Sceptered Isle. I checked the Corpus of Global Web-based English (a corpus of over 1.9 billion words from 20 countries) and found natter scored highest in the UK at 161 instances, with Ireland and Australia lower at 32 and 37 respectively. In fact, it only scores a total of 333 from the entire 1.9 billion word sample, so that’s hardly “universal,” as opposed to twitter, which has a rollicking145,604 instances. Evidence-based vocabulary indeed!

A “decibel of Speechies” is yet another good candidate but seems a little clinical or scientific, whereas a twitter has a sense of humor and bonhomie about it. The same might be said of “an utterance of Speechies,” which while being another great candidate uses a term that means a lot to we clinicians but maybe less to folks outside the field – unless you’re a linguist or psycholinguist.

Whatever the outcome of a vote might be – and we’ve include a poll for you to take! – the “teachable moment” here relates to the idea of these things called collective nouns, which are essential phrases used to describe a group of things. More specifically, it’s typically a way of describing groups of animals (and SLPs are animals, are we not?) and it’s a descriptive form that’s been used in the English language for hundred of years. To be more specific, they can be traced back to a list of formal codifications found in a document from 1450 called The Egerton Manuscript. This contained a list of 106 terms to describe groups of animals for the purpose of hunting. They were called “terms of venery,” not collective nouns, and the word venery comes from the Old French venerie meaning “hunting,” and that in turn comes from the Latin venari meaning “to hunt [2].

These “terms of venery” were expanded upon in what might be the definitive volume called The Boke of St. Albans, a magnificent tome published in 1486 and dedicated to the Art of the Gentleman, who needed to be proficient at hunting, hawking, fishing, and heraldry; a sort of 15th century version of GQ  or Esquire for the sophisticated, urbane, man-about-town – and country.

Here we find such classics as “a school of fish,” “a pride of lions,” “a swarm of bees,” and “a barrel of monkeys.” There are also lesser known terms such as “an exaltation of larks,” “a rope of pearls,” “a run of poultry,” and “a shrewdness of apes.”

Since then, more and more of these collective nouns have been created, many of which are delightfully fanciful and brimming with wit and humor. “A parliament of owls,” “a peep of chickens,” “a prudence of vicars,” “a pity of prisoners,” and ” a kindle of kittens” are just mere drops in the collective bucket.

But assuming you don’t want to slog your way through the free PDF version of The Boke of St. Albans because Medieval English script is not your thing, if you want just ONE book on your shelf that can become you go-to reference on collective nouns, you can do no better than James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition. At the time of writing, you can get a used hardcover in good condition from Amazon at the bargain price of $2.89 – and even with the $3.99 shipping it’s a marvelous investment.

Boke of St. Albans excerpt

Boke of St. Albans excerpt

Once you get passed Lipton’s rather flowery, almost purple, prose, he does a great job of documenting over 1000 collective nouns (he prefers “terms of venery” but I’m happy with “collective nouns”), tracing them back, where possible, to their sources. And as Speechies were not around in the 15th century, alas there is no “definitive” label. However, other medical/educational professions get mentioned. some of which Lipton has coined himself, others he’s gotten from other people:

“A handful of gynecologists”
“A stirrup of obstetricians”
“A rash of dermatologists”
“A herd of otologists”
“A passage of rhinologists”
“A tray of dietitians”
“A gross of pathologists.”

He offers a set of six criteria into which collective nouns can be subdivided:

1. Onomatopoeic: Where there is a sound relationship, such as “a murmuration of starlings.
2. Characteristic: Where there is a relationship between the thing being described and its characteristics e.g. “a paddling of ducks” or “a destruction of wildcats.”
3. Appearance: Where there is a relationship based on how something looks e.g. “a knot of toads” or “a skulk of friars.”
4. Habitat: Where something lives, such as “a nest of rabbits.”
5. Comment or Point-of-View: Where the relationship is based on the perspective/opinions of an observer e.g. “a threatening of courtiers.”
6. Error: Where the word used is a corruption of something else, such as “a school of fish,” which comes from shoal.

I’m not sure this is necessarily the best way of categorizing but unless I find enough free time to collect all 1000 of Lipton’s examples and create a new set of criteria, I’ll bow to his suggestions.

So before you leave, help us out by taking our poll, where all you have to do is pick one out of four options. Doubtless you may have another collective noun in mind but we’re just going to focus on the four we’ve mentioned. There’s no right or wrong, and no prizes, just the satisfaction of taking part 😉

POLL: A group of Speechies is…

Notes
[1] A search for triviology on Google returned 8,850 hits (or ghits as they are sometimes called), which is pretty trivial. There’s a writer called Neil Shalin who has a series of sports-related books such as Red Sox Triviology and Steelers Triviology; there’s someone with the twitter handle @triviology; and there’s the nearest thing to a dictionary definition in the Urban Dictionary by way of the word triviologist, which reads “A triviologist is someone who specializes in trivia or who loves trivia for trivia’s sake.” Oddly there was no definition for triviology.

[2] Yes, this is indeed the origin of the word venison, which refers to the meat of animals killed by chasing and hunting. Although the modern-day usage tends to be specific to dead deer, originally it applied to deer, boars, hares, rabbits, and all other such cute, lovable little beasties that hunters want to shoot, skin, and eat. Yum.

 

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2 responses to “A Twitter of Speechies – and other Terms of Venery

  1. So funny! I love these posts and I am most partial to a Natter of Speechies.

  2. I hope you voted 😉 The thing about these collective nouns is that there is never a “right” answer but a “cluster of possibilities.” I dare say a good argument could be made for a “mumble of speechies,” “spiel of speechies,” “spouting of speechies,” “chatter of speechies” or even an “enunciation of speechies!” The trick isn’t finding a phrase – it’s finding one upon which we could all agree; and that’s unlikely 😉

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