Visiting Planet 3708

by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President, St. Mary’s University

“In the beginning was the Word.” ~1 John 3:18~

If you have ever dodged a sleuth of bears, counted a murder of crows or cursed a mischief of rats, then chances are you have been obsessing with collective nouns (not to mention hanging out in rather dangerous places). In my own short career I have been part of a faculty of academics, a decanter of deans, a worship of writers, a  flock of tourists, a congregation, a crowd, a band, and a troupe. I will never be part of a super unity of nuns, a posse of sheri s, a radiance of cardinals, though I have made my way through a mass of priests through to a sea of bishops. In my time Down Under I have also been overwhelmed by a mob of kangaroos, a company of parrots, a school of  sharks at the Great Barrier Reef (though mercifully only a few sharks, too few to warrant a collective title), and a colony of rabbits.

Let me confess that I am one of those people who find dictionaries interesting, purposefully searching out unusual words in my quest to marvel at the vagaries of language. Some of this has been hard work, some of it boring, and some exhilarating. But without a doubt the most magical feature of the English language is the creativity behind collective nouns, those words that we have developed to embrace groups of people and things. Here is language at its most playful and creative. Who is not envious of the person who first proposed a culture of bacteria, a leash of greyhounds or a horde of hamsters? Surely this is as exciting as naming a planet, and a darn sight more creative given how many are simply given a string of numerals as nomenclature. Anyone longing to visit planet 3708?

In some respects the use of collective nouns seems a modern and democratic one, so it amazed me to discover that the practice goes back as far as the  fth century (and no doubt beyond this), and that it may indeed have had its roots in aristocratic practices, where noblemen sought a taxonomy that would at once collectively identify the animals of the forest whilst setting their words apart from the common parlance of the peasants. As James Lipton points out—referring to one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s post-Sherlock adventures—there is an exchange between an older Knight and his young charge where the former chastises the youngster for his reference to a “herd of swine.”  is, he intones, “is peasant speech.” A lowly person is meant to drive a herd of pigs; but a man of gentle birth hunts a “sounder of swine!”

In the end, language, like education, is an ever changing, constantly evolving, proposition. It is the connective tissue that holds us all together or that divides us categorically. And just as we continually strive to know more, so we should be re ning how we communicate this knowledge. Isn’t this the magic of a place of learning? That it is a gathering space not just for ideas, but people who are skilled at bringing thoughts—words—to life. St. Mary’s University  is one such place, where we strive to create a space of inclusion and debate, faith and meaning for everyone who comes here.  at, to me, is the most important collective noun there is: university—universitas—a community of teachers, scholars and students.