Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Jam of Tarts? An Assay of Trollope's? A Flourish of Strumpets?

It's a concept that is almost gone from common English, but there used to be nouns in our vocabulary that described collections or groups of birds, animals, even humans. Some of them were pretty descriptive -- a parliament of rooks, a murder of crows -- and some had a delightful flourish -- a spring of teals, an exaltation of larks.

Naturally something like that couldn't remain unsullied for long. Wags came up with such things as an addition of mathematicians, a clutch of mechanics, a tedium of golfers, an intrigue of politicians.

For a while during the 19th and early 20th Century even the hallowed halls of Oxford were not immune. Three dons discussing the concept were walking home one night from the pub when they saw a group of "ladies of the evening" going by.

"Okay. What would you call that particular group?" one of them asked the others.

"Obviously that is a jam of tarts," the first one said.

"No, that's an assay of Trollope's," the second one insisted.

"You're both wrong," the third disclaimed. "That is a flourish of strumpets."

A voice came up next to them from a gap in the hedge. "No, gentlemen," the voice said. "What we have here is an anthology of pro's."

That voice allegedly belonged to the poet Conrad Aiken.

Still it's a fun little story of language at play, showing the sheer pleasure that can be had with a little knowledge of the English language, and that anecdote became one of the cobblestones that formed the path of my steadily advancing intent to study English in college and work with words the rest of my life.

More reading:
See Precision of Lexicographers on the World Wide Words website


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! It made me smile while reading it and will make me smile for several days.

Farnsworth68 said...

Thanks, Anon. I like to bring a little smile into people's lives.
--The F Man