Final Word

Play a word game with us and win!

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Collective nouns are one of the most creative tools of the English language, and have been for many centuries, and now our readers can win with this tool.

Ever since the first known list of collective nouns in English was assembled in 1486 as The Book of St Albans, such lists have become a tradition. But no such list can ever be fully comprehensive because the ‘tool’ allows us to create collective nouns as we go along. With the environment around us or our circumstances changing all the time, no compiler of lists has a snowball’s hope in hell to keep up.

The creative process of making collective nouns in English is further facilitated by the fact that, unlike many other languages, English does not have an official committee, academy or governing body keeping guard over it. It is allowed to largely live and develop on the tongues and from the pens of those who speak and write it. In short, it lives in the creative world of linguistic convention.

If an idiom, expression or collective noun resonates with the users of the language it can become ‘standard’ and survive for some time. If not, it will just disappear into oblivion.

In the case of collective nouns no one today would quarrel with you or be in doubt as to what you are referring to if you, from that 1486 list, refer to a “pride of lions” or a “gaggle of geese”. They might, however, frown a bit if you refer to a “cast of hawks” or “a knot of toads” – from that same list,

Over time the collective noun widened its reach to capture not only the world of nature, but also groups of people with their peculiarities. Soon we got “a wiggery of barristers” and “a rage of maidens” with ‘rage’ originally understood to mean “jesting, fun; riotous or wanton behaviour”.

In more modern lists of collective nouns you would find a “rave of DJ’s”, a “hedge of venture capitalists”, a “brace of orthodontists” and a “disputation of lawyers”. And spare a thought for our president with five wives – on that list you will also find a “mutter of mothers-in-law”.

Creative powers

With this creative space that the making of collective nouns allows us, it also can be used to give personal expression to our own world, experiences and perceptions.

On no list that I could lay my hands on, a standard collective noun for grandchildren was to be found. But if you are of my vintage and in a similar position you will not quarrel with me if I refer to mine as a “whole blessing of grandchildren”. You will, with the summer holiday just about upon us, also understand if I – before the year is out – call them “a riot”.

Competition

This finally brings me to our competition and your chance to win.

We invite our readers to send us their self-, family-, regional- or profession-made collective noun or nouns over the next twelve editions. We have a panel that will select the best one on a weekly basis and we will mail that contributor a free, signed copy of Babalaas to Hell – a collection of Final Word columns published here.

You are welcome to also provide a short (not more than 150 words) background, rationale or explanation on your contribution. We might also use it in future columns with attribution to you.

Please email your entries to me at [email protected]. All entries received by Friday every week will be considered for the next week’s prize.

by Piet Coetzer

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