Mind Your Language

In the early 1980s, a work of fiction first surfaced as a cult classic before rolling on, wavelike, to become an enormous best seller in the United States. Its title intrigued me so much, I bought it. 

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is a hilarious romp through the mind of its protagonist Ignatius J Reilly, a fat Don Quixote who bears a perpetual grudge against the world for reasons too crazy to explain. 

But the original source of my fascination with the book was its title, specifically the collective noun it employed to group “dunces.” A read-through of the book’s foreword cleared up the mystery.  

The title was spun off from a saying coined by the satirist Jonathan Swift: “when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” In the context of the book, it made sense: Ignatius naturally fancied himself a genius. 

But it was the genius of the collective noun that grabbed me.  

The English language has always fascinated me because of its flexibility. A bird in itself cannot make a pun. But toucan. 

You see what I mean? 

But collective nouns like “confederacy” lend themselves to slick or surreal, even classy imagery. They can move you to awed respect as I was on witnessing said book title by Mr Toole. 

Or they can render you disbelieving. Take apes, for example. They still can’t believe that we descended from them which might explain why it is a “shrewdness” of apes. 

And I think it was an ape that pointed out that evolution was only a “theory” and that it was gravity that was the “law.”  

Crows are considered ugly, quarrelsome scavengers which one property agent actually thinks brings down the value of Malaysian neighbourhoods. So it’s no wonder that it’s a “murder” of crows although one suspects you still might have to prove probable cawse. 

One would immediately accept a “pride” of lions given the imperious bearing of the species. A “parliament” of owls also sounds right although they might not give a hoot. 

There is something poetic about an “exaltation” of larks while it might not be amusing to be confronted by an “obstinacy” of buffalo. A “tower” of giraffes rings true as does a “prickle” of porcupines. A “cauldron” of bats does render them sufficiently creepy and a “flamboyance” of flamingos is just classy. 

Similarly, a “caravan” of camels is perfect as in the ancient Arab proverb that dismisses criticism thus: the dogs may bark but the caravan moves on.

I have never liked cats. They are far too independent and sneering to be considered seriously as pets. I mean, a dog has an owner but a cat has a staff.

Therefore, I congratulate the Earls of English for their choice of a “nuisance” of cats. That is spot-on given their propensity to turn up uninvited and make themselves at home. 

But, come on. I mean, a “cowardice” of dogs? OK, my old dog Sandy treated burglars with the same enthusiasm it reserved for my nieces but that had more to do with its infectious joy for life. I would respectfully suggest an “ebullience” or a “rapture” of dogs.