The English language is no stranger to phrases and words with curious origins. But have we ever sat and wondered why? There are collective nouns for almost everything. Some widely known, some not. Some accurate, some not. Some meaningful, and some downright offensive. For example, a Mayflower of Americans makes sense. So does a melody of harpers. But what about the bizarre ones?
Though the entries in the following list appear quite offensive to us, they were oddly appropriate and accurate in the Middle Ages and earlier. There’s a certain levity and whimsicality about the undermentioned collective nouns. Many are sarcastic in tone but do understand the fact that these were originally intended to educate the lords and ladies of the time. So, in order to not be offended, read them as though you were one of the snobbish aristocracy.
10. A Herd of Harlots
The word “harlot” comes from the Old French word, “arlot” or “herlot”, meaning vagabond. Soon, it became an uncomplimentary word for a prostitute. Though frowned upon, prostitution was an inevitable and excused social evil. Primarily an urban institution, it existed but was restricted. Brothels entertained men from all classes of society. Women who went into the profession did so out of economic circumstances, to make a living. Women, who could not make sufficient money through their chief profession, turned to prostitution for the extra income.
The Medieval sumptuary laws compelled prostitutes to dress in a manner befitting the profession. Often, they were made to wear a colored sash or striped hood to distinguish them from the respectable “gaggle”. They were referred to as a herd to mark their inferiority and show them their standing in the social hierarchy.
9. An Obedience of Servants
This further illustrates the social hierarchy of the time. Servants, usually peasants, were usually employed in aristocratic households to cook, clean and run errands. They often had very demanding lives, overseeing the lives of the lords and ladies. The average upper-class households had around 100 to 200 servants. Each task had a servant assigned to it and there was a pecking order for the whole staff. Yes, very Downton Abbey-like.
Disobedience was dealt with harshly. Servants who broke rules or misbehaved were in for a pay cut or a lashing in more serious cases. Servants, who tried to escape from service, could be tried under law. Yes, very Kunta Kinte-Roots like.
8. A Superfluity of Nuns
During the middle ages, the number of nunneries increased greatly. Any woman, rich or poor, noble or peasant could become a nun. Soon, there were too many of them. So, one can understand why the people were tired looking at these nuns. They were everywhere and being a buzzkill to their daily, hedonistic lifestyle.
With time, people began to question the point of it all. With church reforms and the advent of Protestantism, people began to wonder if the monastery and the convent were now, well, superfluous!
7. An Abominable Sight of Monks
This clearly reveals the public opinion of the time towards the men of the cloth. They were men who dedicated their lives to religion. They were forbidden from marrying or owning property. But what about the eventual American dream? Aargh!
During the Middle Ages, though allegedly charitable, the monks themselves led a fairly comfortable life, unlike the general public. This soon turned to resentment with the constant plagues and famines that devastated medieval societies. While the general population starved, the forever increasing number of monks allegedly led comfortable, well-fed lives. Just imagine such a sight! Surely abominable.
6. A Rascal/Blush of Boys
This referred to a gang or group of juvenile delinquents who scourged medieval society. Though they were regular trouble makers, they weren’t considered a threat that warranted constant observation. They shared the noun with the fawn of deer. Young deer too weren’t deemed to be worthy of the effort of the hunt.
The “blush” does not refer to the sudden reddening of the face of hormonal boys, as if in embarrassment or shame on a pretty girl walking by. Rather, it refers to the reddening after being flogged for being a troublesome transgressor. No, there wasn’t such a thing as Social Services then.
5. A Fighting of Beggars
Though the phrase brings to mind an image of several beggars quarrelling over a serendipitous coin, the word “fighting” or “fyton” in Middle English implied dishonest or lying. Unlike today, there weren’t ample homeless shelters, unemployment, and disability benefits in medieval times. Also, the people weren’t always charitable.
The Church levied a tax of 10 percent on the annual production. But as poverty increased, the twisted solution of the Franciscan movement led to further malnourishment and dread. The Franciscans principally stole the jobs and food meant for the beggar. So, the beggars had to improvise and come up with inventive methods to obtain money. So, many of them feigned illnesses or handicaps in order to coax people into almsgiving. The courts of law often had to interfere to inhibit such practices.
In one such incident, two men tried to obtain handouts by pretending to be merchants who had their tongues cut out by alleged predators. Later, they were found out and punished for their fabrication. Now, it doesn’t seem so offensive, does it? “A fighting of beggars” sounds more appropriate considering the medieval times.
In all societies, modern or medieval, begging has been historically considered a social evil. Though the wealthy are shoveling in large amounts of money, there are still people around us collecting change, hoarding inessential commodities and sleeping in cardboard boxes. Some cultures advocate alms-giving while the others advocate the principle, “if you want money, get freaking a job”.
4. A Gaggle of Women/Bevy of Ladies
Talk about male chauvinism. This sounds like something the English linguists of the time came up with during a drinking game on poker night.
Funnily, women and gossip share a common noun, too: a gaggle of women. A gaggle of gossips. Gaggle, much like geese, obviously being a reference to the sound of chitchat among women. Though not all, some women exercised power. Thanks to a lack of respect towards privacy at the time, women with sources to information could cause a lot of problems. They could destroy reputations and create great shifts in balance of power in the society.
3. An Impatience of Wives
What’s funny though is the same men who glorified the ethereal nature of young women, now affront their wives. Note that it is a bevy of ladies. Yet, an impatience of wives. The same “ladies” who shared a noun with the tender and docile swan and roe deer, have been terribly rebranded after marriage.
Most women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their family’s economic condition, were left with two options: to either marry or become a nun. Women, who married, became the lawful property of their oh-so-honorable husbands. Though they often helped their husbands with a wide variety of work, their primary responsibilities included waiting patiently (if possible) for their dear husbands to come and plant their seed after a hard day’s work. Hmm, one wonders why they grew impatient!
2. An Unhappiness of Husbands
Oh, poor medieval husbands. Unhappy with their wives’ impatience, we presume? It is quite comical how the nouns for husbands and wives are quite negative. It’s almost like men and women of the time weren’t too cheerful about the whole institution of marriage. The women perhaps grew impatient of their husbands’ refusal to acknowledge them and the men grew tired and unhappy of their wives’ complaining. Have we got the etymology right?
In an obviously patriarchal medieval society, men were the domineering breadwinners. The submissive women existed merely to gratify men. Men were admired and respected in society. Blamed for man’s expulsion from paradise, the women weren’t particularly respected in medieval society. In fact, medieval art often depicted the serpent with a woman’s head. Women were generally considered inferior to men and more morally fallible. Yet, it’s an unhappiness of husbands. Hmmm! Interesting “logic” there.
1. A Disworship of Scots
One of the oldest rivalries in history, the English and the Scots have been going at each other for a long while now. This terribly offensive noun though is just one of many ways the English have pissed off the Scots. What better way to describe their hostility than through the medium of film! Here’s Ewan McGregor, a Scottish actor in Trainspotting, a film by an English director, Danny Boyle.