The Worldwide Weblog of Donald Pincher

by Joshua Gaskell

Tag: Fowler’s Modern English Usage

Saturday, 28th November 2015

The BBC continues to refer to ‘so-called Islamic State’ on the basis that Islamic State (not Daesh) is what the group calls itself, but that ‘used on its own the name Islamic State could suggest that such a state exists and such an interpretation is potentially misleading.’ (These are the words of Tony Hall’s letter to Rehman Chishti MP, who called for the BBC to stop using the name Islamic State. Lord Hall did not touch on whether, used on its own, the name could suggest that the group is Islamic or whether such an interpretation is or is not potentially misleading.)

Any decision about what to call the organisation will be a compromise; and so-called Islamic State, though clumsy and a little bet-hedging, seems a reasonable one. But the question of what so-called actually means here is interesting.

A history of the attributive use of the adjective by mean of three reference entries:

Called or designated by this name or term, but not properly entitled to it or correctly described by it. […] More recently, and now quite commonly (esp. in technical contexts), used merely to call attention to the description, without implication of incorrectness’. (Oxford English Dictionary)

[So-called] is traditionally used, often rather scornfully, before a name or description to signal doubt about whether the thing or person so described is entitled to the description, as in this so-called work of art. In more recent usage, and now quite commonly (especially in technical contexts), it is used merely to call attention to the description, without implying that it is incorrect, (e.g. the socalledgeneration gap’) (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage)

‘used to show that something or someone is commonly designated by the name or term specified […] used to express one’s view that such a name or term is inappropriate’. (Oxford Dictionary of English)

There’s a clear development:

  • The entry in the OED, published in 1913, gives the primary definition of so-called as signalling that the name in question is an incorrect description of the thing in question. The more modern, neutral, technical definition is in a subordinate position (and smaller font as published).
  • The 2015 edition of Fowler’s, clearly based on the OED entry, is conservative enough to keep the scornful meaning of so-called at the top. But it’s knowingly so, calling attention to this being how the term is ‘traditionally used’, thus giving more credence to the neutral definition that follows.
  • Finally, the 2010 ODO, ‘focusing on English as it is used today’, switches the order of the definitions, giving (without reference to technical contexts) the primary definition of so-called as, ‘used to show that something or someone is commonly designated by the name or term specified’. (Funnily enough, this is closer to the original, predicative, neutral use of so called, which predates the attributive: ‘Called or designated by that name’ (OED).)

So in justifying its use of so-called Islamic State, the BBC has a fair amount of semantic wiggle room: if we take the OED as definitive, the term supports the ‘neither Islamic nor a state’ line; but if we prefer the more modern account of actual usage, so-called Islamic State simply refers to the thing ‘commonly designated by the name’ Islamic State, without implying that that is an incorrect description of it.


Saturday, 19th September 2015

Collective nouns (or ‘proper terms’) denoting groups of animals and people – ‘a shrewdness of apes’, ‘a hastiness of cooks’, etc. – have long been a source of linguistic fun. However, ‘Many of these are fanciful or humorous terms which probably never had any real currency’ (Fowler’s). I thought it would be interesting to compile a list of those that have entered the OED, along with the dictionary’s judgement as to their genuineness.

The Second Edition of the dictionary often defines the words in the form, The/a —— term/name for a company of ——s.

  • barren: ‘Specific term for a drove of mules.’
  • berry: ‘the spec. name for a company of rabbits.’
  • bevy: ‘The proper term for a company of maidens or ladies, of roes, of quails, or of larks.’
  • bike: ‘A nest of wasps, hornets, or wild bees, as distinct from the hive or skep of domestic bees. Also, the whole nestful of bees; a swarm.’
  • bleach: ‘the term for, A company of [souters].’
  • blush: ‘a ‘company’ of boys.’
  • building: ‘A company (of rooks), a rookery.’
  • bunch: ‘A flock of waterfowl.’
  • cast: ‘The number of hawks cast off at a time; a couple; also of other birds.’
  • cete: ‘A ‘company’ of badgers.’
  • charge: ‘Term for a ‘company’ of clergy having the cure of souls.’
  • chirm: ‘A company or flock (of finches).’
  • congregation: ‘a gathering, assemblage, or company […] of plovers.’
  • covert: ‘The technical term for a flock or ‘company’ of coots.’
  • covey: ‘A brood or hatch of partridges; a family of partridges keeping together during the first season. (Sometimes also of grouse, ptarmigan, etc.)’
  • cry: ‘A pack of hounds’ or ‘contemptuously. A ‘pack’ (of people).’
  • desert: ‘An alleged name for a covey of lapwings.’
  • dignity: ‘The term for a ‘company’ of canons.’
  • disguising: ‘An alleged appellation for a ‘company’ of tailors.’
  • disworship: ‘Alleged term for a ‘company’ of Scots.’
  • dole: ‘A fanciful term for a company of doves.’
  • draught: ‘A fanciful name for a ‘company’ of butlers.’
  • drift (in the sense ‘That which is driven’): ‘A number of animals driven or moving along in a body; a drove, herd, flock, flight (of birds), swarm (of bees). Rarely of persons’ or ‘A fanciful name for a company of fishers.’
  • exaltation: ‘A fanciful name for: A flight (of larks).’
  • example: ‘An alleged designation for a company (of ‘masters’).’
  • execution: ‘An alleged designation for a company of officers.’
  • fall: ‘An alleged name for a covey or flight (of woodcocks).’
  • fellowshipping: ‘the alleged proper term for a company of yeomen.’
  • fighting: ‘An alleged designation for a company of beggars.’
  • flight: ‘the special term for a company of doves, swallows, and various other birds.’
  • gaggle: ‘a company (of women). […] One of the many artificial terms invented in the 15th c. as distinctive collectives referring to particular animals or classes of persons; but unlike most of the others, it seems to have been actually adopted in use.’
  • glorifying: ‘As an alleged term for a company (of liars).’
  • glozing: ‘An alleged name for a ‘company’ (of taverners).’
  • goring: ‘An alleged name for a company of butchers.’
  • haras: ‘a stud, breed, or race of horses’.
  • hastiness: ‘A fanciful name for a ‘company’ of cooks.’
  • host: ‘A name for a ‘company’ of sparrows.’
  • huske: ‘An old name for a ‘company’ of hares.’
  • kerf: ‘Humorous term for a company of pantry-men.’
  • kindle: ‘A brood or litter (of kittens).’
  • kit: ‘A school of pigeons.’
  • lash: ‘An alleged name for a ‘company’ of carters.’
  • leap: ‘An alleged name for a ‘company’ of leopards.’
  • lying: ‘Alleged name for a ‘company’ of pardoners.’
  • shrewdness: ‘A pretended term for a ‘company’ of apes.’
  • siege: ‘a group or flock of herons.’
  • skein: ‘A flight of wild fowl.’
  • skulk: ‘A number, company, or gathering (of persons or animals given to skulking).’
  • sloth: ‘A company of bears (or erroneously, boars).’
  • smear: ‘A ‘company’ of curriers.’
  • sord: ‘A flight or flock of mallards.’
  • sounder: ‘A herd of wild swine.’
  • tabernacle: ‘An alleged term for a company of bakers.’
  • trip: ‘A troop or company of men’, ‘A small flock (of goats, sheep, hares, etc.)’, or ‘A small flock of wild-fowl.’
  • troop: ‘A herd, flock, swarm; esp. a group of apes or monkeys.’
  • unbrewing: ‘A fanciful name for a ‘company’ (of carvers).’
  • unkindness: ‘A flock (of ravens).’
  • watch: ‘in the early lists of ‘proper terms’, app. intended to designate wakefulness as the distinctive quality of the [nightingale]; by late writers misapprehended as the proper term for a flock or company of nightingales.’
  • wedge: ‘The V-shaped formation adopted by a number of geese or other wildfowl when flying.’
  • wisp: ‘A flock (of birds, esp. snipe).’
  • worship: ‘An alleged name for a company of writers.’

Many of the Third Edition’s entries carry the explanatory note, ‘One of many alleged group names found in late Middle English glossarial sources.’

  • badling: ‘A collective term for: a group of ducks (formerly also hens).’
  • business: ‘a swarm of flies, a group of ferrets.’
  • discreetness and discretion: ‘A company of priests.’
  • faith: ‘A company of merchants.’
  • gam: ‘A herd or school of whales (later also of porpoises).’
  • head: ‘A group or indefinite number of animals; esp. a stock or managed population of game or (now usually) fish.’
  • labour: ‘A collective term for: a group of moles.’
  • laughter: ‘A gathering or group of ostlers.’
  • melody: ‘A group (of harpists).’
  • misbelief: ‘A term for: a company (of painters).’
  • multiplying: ‘A group (of husbandmen).’
  • murder: ‘A flock (of crows).’
  • murmuration: ‘A flock (of starlings); spec. (in later use) a large gathering of starlings creating intricate patterns in flight.’
  • muster: ‘A collection or group (of peacocks).’
  • mute: ‘A pack (of hounds).’
  • never-thriving: ‘a group (of jugglers)’.
  • non-patience: ‘A group of wives.’
  • nye: ‘A brood of pheasants.’
  • obeisance: ‘A company of servants.’
  • observance: ‘a religious group observing a common rule. Also: spec. the Franciscan Observants; (rarely) an Observant friary.’
  • pace: ‘A pack or team of asses.’
  • parliament: ‘a noisy gathering of birds, esp. rooks’.
  • peep: ‘A flock of chickens.’
  • pod: ‘A herd or school of marine mammals, esp. a small herd or family group of whales or dolphins.’
  • pontifical: ‘A company or group of (esp. ecclesiastical) dignitaries.’
  • pontificality: ‘A company of prelates’.
  • poverty: ‘A company (of pipers).’
  • prudence: ‘A gathering or group of vicars.’
  • rag: ‘A group (of colts).’
  • rage: ‘A group (of maidens or colts).’
  • rake: ‘A herd (of colts).’
  • richesse: ‘A group (of pine martens).’
  • rookery: ‘A breeding colony of sea birds, esp. penguins, on or close to the coast. Later also: a breeding colony of wading birds.’
  • rout: ‘A number of animals grouped together; a pack, flock, herd, etc.; spec. a pack of wild animals, esp. wolves.’
  • safeguard: ‘A group or ‘company’ of porters.’
  • superfluity: ‘A collective term for: a group of nuns.’
  • walk: ‘A flock (of snipes).’

Monday, 4th May 2015

The businessese phrase going forward is criticised for being a modish, redundant and irritating example of groupspeak. The new edition of Fowler’s, for example, calls it ‘much maligned’, and the OxfordWords blog laments the fact that it ‘now seems to be tacked on unthinkingly to every utterance’.

I wonder whether it offends the ear as it does on account of being American not only in origin but also in grammar. Adverbially speaking, forward is fast gaining ground over forwards, with British and Irish English the remaining strongholds of the latter. So let’s keep it that way; and, if we must jargonise, do so in our native tongue – going forwards.

Friday, 20th February 2015

Hashtalics, n.

Pronunciation: /haʃˈtalɪks/
Etymology: < pun on hash n. + italics n.

Typography in which all words and phrases are preceded by a hash sign (#): employed on Twitter to increase the chances of a Tweet being read, usu. with the opposite effect.

To paraphrase Fowler:

To those who, however competent on their special subject, have not had enough experience of Tweeting to have learnt the rudiments it comes as natural to hashtalicise every word as it comes to the letter-writing schoolgirl to underline whatever she enjoys recording.

Thursday, 18th December 2014

Yesterday afternoon on PM, former Clerk of the House of Commons Robert Rogers referred to the ‘constitutional conundra’ which the Clerk of the House has to deal with. Always a fan of classical plurals, I look up conundra only to find that it’s wrong, the reason being that conundrum is not bona fide Latin, but rather ‘an Oxford term; possibly originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools’ (OED). The Pocket Fowler’s remarks that it is ‘perhaps a facetious invention’. In any case, conundra is a quasi-classical plural (like octopi and syllabi), and I won’t start using it till I’ve finished declining abracadabra and conjugating hocus-pocus.

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