Monthly Archives: August 2011

Nouns, Nuns, Nonagenarians


The Boke of St Albans, and Dame Juliana
Thank you to Richard of Bengeo for alerting me to the fact that there isn’t a collective noun for collective nouns.
Prompted by his suspicion that collective nouns were a Victorian concoction, I decided on a ‘contrivance’.
But then I did a bit of rootling and discovered they’ve been around since at least 1450. And the ultimate 15th century bible of collective nouns was written in these parts – Hertfordshire.

The Boke of St Albans (1486), by a nun called Dame Juliana Berners, included lists of collective nouns for ‘companys of beestys and fowlys’. Known as ‘terms of venery’, they were used by aristocratic hunting types as a sort of tribal shibboleth.

There is still a sort of snobbery, I suppose, about knowing a business of ferrets from a badling of ducks or a peep of chickens, and knowing the difference between a gaggle and a skein of geese.

As for Dame Juliana Berners, she was allegedly brought up in court (which explains her enthusiasm for huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’) but found God and became a prioress. It’s been claimed she was the earliest female author in England and she wrote the first ever guide to fishing – A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle (1496). That’s if she really existed. No-one’s quite sure.

An interesting footnote is that the Boke of St Albans came back into fashion in the 16th century, when it was edited by Gervase Markham who renamed it The Gentleman’s Academic.

By sheer coincidence, I interviewed Gervase Markham’s namesake and descendant, Canon Gervase Markham (1910 – 2007), for a Radio 4 Home Truths feature a few years ago. It’s pronounced Gerviss by the way. He was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met – preaching (and dry-stone-walling) way into his 90s and learning one new language per year.

There’s a Gervase every second generation in the family, and I interviewed his grandson – also Gervase Markham – who was an entrepreneur and Oxford undergraduate. He’s now a web whizzkid and one of the people behind Mozilla’s Bugzilla programme.

I suspect the collective noun is a Genius of Gervases.


Revd Gervase Markham

Not Such An Ugly Duckling

It’s good to see the Hertford cygnets are doing well. I stumbled on this one grooming itself the other day. Almost a swan, but not quite. I did ask its permission to take these pics, so don’t report me to the RSPB. Thank you.


Glen Coe


Ladies of the Lake, on Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, making origami swans for us