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A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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I Love A Good List

It all began as a kind of a joke. We were sitting in my parent’s backyard on a warm summer evening, sipping lemonade made from the fruit of the ancient tree in the corner. My brother had said something about being harassed by bees, and my father had teased him about there only being one truly persistent little fellow.

 

I don’t know who said it, but someone said there was a bunch of bees lurking, waiting evilly to sting my poor brother without mercy. I picked up on the expression “a bunch of bees” and started listing all the other kinds of collectives that it could be. A bunch of bees, a bevy of bees, a bale, a band, a crowd of bees, a crew, a club, a flock, a fleet, a flotilla, a group of bees, a gaggle, a gang, and a herd of bees, a pod, a throng, a smattering, heck, I even went to a murder, an unkindness, and a business of bees. (Those last three go with crows, ravens, and ferrets, in case you were wondering.)

 

It became a thing with us, especially for my dad and me. I’d spend hours trying to track down the name of a group of turtles (a bale). This was long before the Internet was much more than a bunch of forums. I even tripped over a high school boyfriend on one of those forums in my mad quest to collect collectives. Later, I discovered that there are whole societies of people like me who collect these words.

 

It does seem like those people are all kooks, though. Hmmm.

 

My collection grew, and more than a decade later, my father requested the list, so I posted it to my website here (by collective name) and here (by noun).

 

When I was doing my research on Hildegard of Bingen, I was curious about why she began listing the local flora and fauna. I mean, it was a great idea but a rather enormous undertaking. Her motives seem to be about providing medical information. If you read some of her advice, well, it’s downright scary. She’d have you ingesting bits of iron ore that had been “soaked” in wine. Yikes. But I digress.

 

The point is, as I researched, I could see that it was fashionable to make lists in her lifetime. The greatest list ever written had been completed a little over a decade before she was born (the Domesday Book). It’s not clear whether this census of England and Wales (completed in 1086 for William the Conqueror, and meant to account for all of Britain’s assets) was the beginning of that fad or just the epitome of it. But it certainly triggered the tradition of applying a surname, which spread across Europe—they had to say WHICH John or Tom it was: the smith, the dark-haired one, or the one from Leadenham.

 

But there were tons of other lists. Scientist listed stars and planets and such (as they knew them), mathematicians listed equations and formulas, botanists listed plants, doctors listed bones and cures, women listed fabrics, ribbons, and other sewing notions, and so on, each according to his or her interests. For more than a century, Europe was compiling lists of things.

It’s a wonderful snapshot, really. Domesday set the trend for inventorying, and businesses made lists and itemized for customers, taxes, and their own reckoning of personal wealth. Private citizens listed their belongings and their friends, public figures listed their accomplishments and their supporters. Even lists of lists were in vogue.

 

The good news is that scientists and historians alike have a wonderful insight into the Middle Ages because of this fad. If you spend some time at your local university library, you can even see some of these lists in action. My personal favorite is the bestiary. These lists of animals (real and imaginary) included stories and fables, attributions of traits (so that when you made your family crest you had the right traits highlighted), and sometimes illustrations and attributions to who might have made the association. There’s a good online bestiary at www.bestiary.ca.

 

During the Middle Ages, the age of chivalry, you might recall, if you were an aristocratic family, you came up with a family crest. This was made into stained glass windows for your castle, emblazoned on the doors, cutlery, and household tapestries, and most certainly could be found on your sword’s hilt and front and center on your shield.  

 

If you were royalty, for instance, you might choose a lion because it’s the king of the other beasts. It is thought to be wily, wary, and fair in judgements. A lion’s strength is in its chest, its firmness in its head, and its courage in its forehead and tail. The roar of a lion makes other animals weak with fear. The lion is thought to represent Jesus to Christians, to illustrate both irrational fear and irrational courage to readers of Aesop’s Fables, and Pliny the Elder’s readers think of the lion as a kind of self-regulating study in moderation. Rampant (reared up on its hind legs), standing, and lying down lions were options, as were forked tails, two heads, two bodies (and a single head), three or even four bodies, wings, webbed feet, and a fish tail from the waist down.

 

You and your family leaders would choose the suitable heraldic beast and design something that was meaningful to you. So you consulted a list and later, your crest was added to a list of crests.

 

In short (is it too late for that?), my interest in lists may SEEM innate, but really, it is yet another outcropping of my interest in the Middle Ages. Put it on the list of things I’m inadvertently consistent about.