#478: Nouns of Assemblage

May 18th, 2015

We’ll start simply. A group of wolves is a pack.

Pride of lions, that’s one everyone knows.

A herd of sheep.

Now let’s get more complicated, ratchet it up.

A murder of crows.

A parliament of owls.

A smack of jellyfish.

They’re called nouns of assemblage, linguistic oddities half historic and half made up to describe what a group of things would be. A knot of toads. A leap of leopards. A shoal of bass.

One of the best sources collecting these collectives is James Lipton’s “An Exultation of Larks.” In it, the man who would be mocked as the “Inside the Actors Studio” toady (and past pimp) dove into research to find some terms and made up the others, inviting his readers to do the same.

It’s a fun game, but raises some questions. We see more owls on this continent than lions, but why is a “pride” a well-known term and “parliament” confusing trivia?

Are a group of lawyers playing badminton “an eloquence” for the law or “a battle” for the badminton?

What’s a group of old Polish women riding the bus to church on a gray and misty Sunday morning?

The Milwaukee bus came to a stop in Avondale, by the house of a friend who let me crash the night before. I Ventraed aboard to turn and see the cluster of old Polish women… the slew? The smack?

I came on board the bus and prim and proper unsmiling Polish women turned their white heads to glance at me.

We rode the bus southeast.

They talked softly, practicing their church voices. They weren’t a congregation yet, wouldn’t be until they crossed the church doors. They were too quiet and coiffed to be the “gaggle of women” Lipton found from 13 separate sources in his research.

They spoke in hushed tones, preparing for the piety to come.

A cloud of witnesses.

A gang of elk.

A rash of dermatologists.

And what to call the middle-aged Hispanic man hawking cotton candy through Logan Square?

The gray morning had become a hot and windy afternoon. The man hoisted a pole dappled with bags of pink and blue floss over his shoulder, wiping his head as he walked. He was alone, tramping his path by Western and Fullerton, one of hundreds across the city hoisting a tree’s worth of cotton candy bags on a stick.

A charm of finches.

A hover of trout.

A skulk of thieves.

The Croatians gather to play bocce in Lincoln Square.

The hot afternoon had become a mild and beautiful evening. In Welles Park, they’ve been coming for decades on nights like this to bowl on the lawn in spots not claimed by Little League players and children spinning around until they fall.

The men huddle and yell in Croatian, arguing and bartering with each roll about who hit what and what the strategy should be. Younger generations have crept into the game over the years, the gray heads punctuated by black ones. All laugh and yell and gripe and holler at the game, surrounded by a dray of bounding black squirrels.

A haggle of bocce players arguing in Croatian.

A bindle of cotton candy sellers hoisting their wares on shoulder.

A whisper of old Polish women riding the bus to church on a gray and misty Sunday morning.

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