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Is Knowledge Really Power?

Photo: Universal Images.  

Given that people cannot agree whether it should be ‘scientia potentia est’ or ‘scientia est potentia’ or ‘scientia potestas est’, or whether this phrase comes from the Book of Proverbs, Francis Bacon or Thomas Hobbes, I would suggest that knowledge may well not be power.  However, it can be very useful in a quiz, particularly when you know something that others do not. 

One of the highlights of our various periods in lockdown was the weekly quiz set and run by Henry Meller, our aptly-titled Director of Teaching and Learning.  Among the many memorable moments was a round on collective nouns, where it turned out Lawrence Ellard, our Head of Wellbeing, was a genuine guru, suggesting a link perhaps not between knowledge and power but between knowledge and happiness – and there is little more joy to be found than in winning a quiz, particularly against your workmates. 

When it comes to collective nouns, there are some easy starters for ten – a parliament of owls, a school of fish, a herd of bison and a pack of wolves – but this is an area that can quickly become obscure and esoteric.  It is, apparently, a crash of rhinos, which would seem to make more sense than a tiptoe, and a rafter of turkeys, perhaps where they go after voting for Christmas each year? 

Among many difficulties with this area of the English language, and its application in its native land, is that there is no central authority to decide which collective noun is correct.  The French would never stand for such indecision and shilly-shallying.  They have an organisation dedicated to the preservation of their language called the French Academy, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 and consisting of forty elected officials, who are known, collectively of course, as ‘The Immortals’ – though I notice from Wikipedia that five of the forty places are currently vacant, so maybe this is something of a misnomer. 

Given the relentless push of English to become the first-choice global language, the French Academy have had their work cut out in recent years.  A simple jaunt to a local boulangerie for a croissant and a baguette on a Saturday morning is almost certain to elicit the request to spend ‘un bon weekend’, which now seems ubiquitous despite the efforts to retain ‘fin de semaine’, and I can only imagine the battles they must be having with the various expressions for the internet, social media and email. 

For us, the Oxford English Dictionary probably carries as much authority as any, though I am sure Cambridge, Webster’s and Collins would also have something to say on the matter.  However, on the subject of collective nouns at least, the OED is clearly not keen to get involved, as this comment suggests: ‘Today’s lexicographers are describers of English rather than lawmakers.  The definitions they write are based on evidence from thousands of collected texts – newspapers, scholarly journals, teen magazines, text messages – and from transcriptions of the spoken word.’ 

It is also worth remembering that these things can take a long time to come to fruition.  In Susie Dent’s book ‘Word Perfect’, she describes how some of our favourite collective nouns – a gaggle of geese, an exaltation of larks and a murmuration of starlings – sprang from the medieval imagination.  Created by the elite for the elite, they were written down in books of etiquette designed to instruct the nobility on how not to embarrass themselves while out hunting, hawking or fishing.  For the medieval nobleman, knowing that the correct term for a group of ferrets was a busyness, for hares a flick and for hounds a mute was a badge of honour. 

The primary source for such terms is apparently the fifteenth-century Book of St Albans, a three-part compendium on aristocratic pursuits, attributed to Dame Juliana Berners, Prioress of the Sopwell nunnery in Hertfordshire.  Not only did her work contain over one hundred and sixty group names for beasts of the chase and characters on the medieval stage, but it also boasted the first images to be printed in colour in England.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was very popular, and was reprinted and reissued many times, including by the superbly named Wynkyn de Worde. 

We still use many of the medieval concoctions, relishing the knowledge that congregated crows form a murder and that foxes come together in a skulk.  Less often deployed, but in their own way much more fun, are such ideas as a misbelief of painters, because portrait artists often made their subjects look rather better than they did in real life, or an abomination of monks, mocking the inability of many to stick to the vows they had taken.  A drunkship of cobblers probably tells us what we need to know about the shoemakers of the fifteenth century, while a diligence of messengers may or may not be appropriate for your local postie and their chums. 

Susie Dent concurs that there is no official list of collective nouns, though my guess would be there are many people out there who think they have the definitive answers.  The trouble is that new ideas are always being added, rendering any compilation obsolete as soon as its author thinks they have finished.  For example, it turns out that there is currently no agreed word for a group of blowfish, though one ardent campaigner is trying to persuade the world that ‘hootie’ is the obvious choice, for reasons you will either see immediately or find utterly perplexing. 

Recent suggestions also include a foothurt of Lego, a pedant of Oxford commas and a blur of opticians.  People who work in the finance sector, specifically looking after other people’s money, might be called a wunch, but I’ll have to leave you to work that out for yourselves, in case there are any younger readers present. 

It may or may not be appropriate to bring all this obscurity to a conclusion with a handy reminder of the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  To have knowledge is to appreciate that a tomato is a fruit: to have wisdom is not to put one in a fruit salad. 


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