A novelty of nouns

Categories: Features, History of food

Mark Riddaway explores the sometimes unusual, often brilliant, origins of the collective nouns that are relevant to Borough Market

Only the English language—richer, looser and more open to innovation than any other tongue in the world—could play host to a collection of phrases as utterly diverse yet weirdly specific as our collective nouns. A group of apes is a ‘shrewdness’, a group of goats a ‘trip’, a group of harpists a ‘melody’: anything else is just plain wrong.

Collective nouns are also known as ‘terms of venery’, a word derived from the Latin term for hunting. It was the world of hunting that first came to standardise and document collective nouns, and group names for animals remain the most commonly used example of the genre. Some have become so embedded in our language that we don’t think twice about using them: a brood of hens, a flock of sheep, a colony of ants. Others—a murder of crows, a knot of toads, a business of ferrets—are less frequently utilised, but imbued with so much poetry that any excuse to roll them out should be grasped with both hands.

The poetic nature of many terms of venery—the use of onomatopoeia, symbolism, punning and irony—is truly life-affirming. They also offer a lovely insight into the world inhabited by those who popularised them. Most were either invented or recorded for the first time in the late 15th century—an era in which the English language was both growing rapidly and becoming fixed in print—and the stench of late medieval England rolls off them in waves.

The key source for collective nouns, known as The Book of St Albans, was first published in 1486. Credited to a woman, Dame Juliana Barnes, prioress of the nunnery of Sopewell in Hertfordshire, it contains three rather poetic essays: one on hawking, one on hunting and one on heraldry. Appended to the second of these is a list of “the Compaynys of bestys and fowlys”: a total of 164 terms of venery, mainly covering animals and birds, but also including social groups: a drunkenness of cobblers, to give one lovely example, or a multiplying of husbands.

Other 15th century collections covered similar ground, although none so comprehensively. These included the Egerton, The Porkington Manuscript and the wonderfully named The Hors, The Shepe & The Ghoos. Between them, they ensured that no huntsman would ever be so gauche as to refer to a group of woodpeckers as an anything other than a ‘descent’, or a collection of hogs as anything other than a ‘drift’. And the world became a better place.

Here are some of the traditional terms of venery which have relevance to Borough Market:

A goring of butchers
Fairly self-explanatory: butchery has always been a pretty gory business, but especially in the days before refrigeration when the job involved killing the animals as well as cutting them up.

A tabernacle of bakers
The sale of bread in medieval England was heavily regulated for purposes of tax collection and price control, and was restricted to licensed markets. The small portable wooden constructions from which bakers sold their loaves were known as tabernacula, probably a reference to the Jewish tabernacle, which according to the bible contained both the Ark of the Covenant and a dozen loaves of very good bread.

An unbrewying of carvers
‘Unbrewying’ means to stain or make dirty, so this is a reference to all that lovely table linen ruined by meat juices and gravy.

A temperance of cooks
The word ‘temper’ meant to mix things together in correct proportions—clearly relevant to cooks. Temperance also relates to self-control or restraint, essential qualities in a busy kitchen. And cooks are, by their very nature, vigorously opposed to temperance in the fields of eating and drinking, so there’s almost certainly a massive amount of irony intended here.

A hastiness of cooks
A rival to the above, found in The Hors, Shepe & The Ghoos. Kitchens, especially in large manor houses, would have been a whirl of activity, so this could be meant literally, but there is a suggestion that it’s the sarcastic invention of rich diners annoyed at being regularly kept waiting by their tardy staff.

A blast of hunters
Probably a reference both to the noise of their horns and the kinetic force of their presence.

A faith of merchants
Heavily imbued with sarcasm. Merchants were not widely trusted, as the expectation was that they would try to pull a fast one whenever possible. Not true anymore, clearly—at least not at Borough Market.

A glozing of taverners
Taverners were basically pub landlords, and ‘glozing’ meant to flatter or cajole: “You’re looking rather sharp tonight, sir. Tell you what, why don’t you have another large gin?”

A promise of tapsters
We’ve all experienced it from bar staff and waiters: “Bear with me madam, your drinks are on their way.”

A laughter of hostelers
Still a welcome sound in any hostelry.