December 13, 2017

Words are the Horses a Writer Rides

Just as a jockey wonders about and studies horses, so should a writer study words; for words are the horses a writer rides.

Language that was perfectly acceptable a couple of hundred years ago has fallen into disuse and I wonder why. Take the word thither for example. I will never have the opportunity to say, “I shall hasten thither to the Seven-eleven for a Slurpee.”

I suppose the reason is that all too often it comes out: “I thall hasten thither to the theven-eleven for a thlurpee,” but that’s not reason enough to kill off a perfectly good word like “thither.”

The English language has a lot of words, mainly because people are not satisfied with using a perfectly good word, but would rather think up another one. One area where this idea is very noticeable is in the area of animal collectives (or Southern California).

We’ve all heard of a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, a gaggle of geese, and a pride of lions. Why can’t we just say “a bunch?” If flock works for sheep, why do we have a flock of chickens? And if flock is okay for sheep or birds, why is it a covey of quail and a cast of hawks? We can also have a brace of pheasant or quail, which means two. If there are five is that two and a half braces? And how many braces to a covey?

Did you ever see a herd of elk along the road? Nope, no such thing, they’re a gang; probably because they all wear leather jackets and carry switchblades. I’m just kidding about the switchblades.

Why do fish travel in schools? Are there elementary and middle schools? Do they ever graduate, or do they just sass the teacher until they’re old enough to spawn? Can they get into college if they keep their mouths shut and don’t take the bait?

I know that whales are not fish, that’s why whales might not swim in schools, but they are bulls, cows, and calves which sounds like cattle, so do they swim in herds? Nope again, they travel in a gam or a pod. Ironically, a gam is a school of whales. This is a paradox as well, because a gam is also a shapely female leg. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Look at the gams on that whale?”

Just try to explain all this to Jonah.

If cattle travel in herds, and you can herd cattle, but you can’t herd cats, does that mean that cats don’t travel in herds? That’s right, but what is a bunch of cats, besides a nuisance? (I have nothing against cats as long as they stay in the road where they belong.) Well, when they’re born, they’re a litter, but so are dogs, wolves, lions, pigs and who knows what else. I also don’t know at exactly what age they are no longer considered a litter or if it varies from species to species. I also know that if a woman has six babies at once, you almost never see any headline using the word “litter”–though some people are surely thinking it.

Quite appropriately, a group of cats is referred to as a clutter, probably because the definition of clutter is “a number of things scattered in disorder” (getting back to the can’t herd cats thing).

Whenever I think of a bale, things like hay, cotton and other stuff bound together in a rectangular bunch and tied with twine are what come to mind. I never would have thought of a bale of turtles, but I guess I just don’t have any imagination. And just how often do you ever see more than one turtle at a time? Also, how many turtles are required to make a bale?

Finally rhinoceroses. It’s not likely that you can herd rhinoceroses any easier than cats, so using our cat logic; rhinoceroses must not travel in herds either. If not, what then? Because they have such poor eyesight, whenever they run around, hither, thither and yon, they are known to run over (or through) whatever happens to be in their path. It just logically follows that a bunch of rhinoceroses is a crash.

And anybody that can handle rhinoceroses four times in one paragraph can handle a thither now and then no matter what kind of horse he or she rides.

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