Starting with only a handful of animals in 1916, our world-famous San Diego Zoo is now home to more than 4,000 creatures representing 800 species. Each year 5 million visitors come to see the Noah’s ark of animals here. To mark the centennial of this jewel in the crown of our city, I offer several beastly showcases:
A pair of animals died at a small zoo. The owner wrote to the animal-supply company to order replacements – “Dear Company: Please send me two mongooses,” and then grew nervous that mongooses was not the correct plural form. So he composed a second draft – “Dear Company: Please send me two mongeese” and then fretted that mongeese was not the correct plural form either.
Finally, he sent this request: “Dear Company: Please send me a mongoose, and, while you’re at it, please send me another mongoose.”
Turns out that mongooses is the proper plural because mongoose is Hindi and is thus made plural in the regular way. In fact, only seven common nouns, all of which go back to Old English, become plural by changing a vowel in their middle. Three are animals – goose-geese, mouse-mice and louse-lice; two are parts of the body – tooth-teeth and foot-feet; and two are people – man-men and woman-women.
Two weeks ago in this space I spotlighted collective nouns for groups of animals, such as a crash of rhinoceroses, a tower of giraffes, an exaltation of larks and a parliament of owls. I invited readers to make up their own fanciful group nouns for both animals and people. Here are some of the best submissions:
a gig of musicians, a blueprint of engineers – Leslie Bercovitz; a pollution of politicians – Joan Bryant; a clown car of pundits – Joel Garry; a hoard of misers – John Gross; a pride of egotists, a gathering of seamstresses – Linda Gross; a pandemonium of meerkats – Alan Iglesias; a cast of fishermen, a mass of priests – Carl Kruse; a cuddle of kittens, a whisper of butterflies – Debbie Mitton; a battery of electricians, a chapter of authors – Rayleen Mullin; a class of teachers – Ed Murdock; an atlas of cartographers – Judy O’Beirne; a burrow of gophers, a leaping of lizards – Robert Reeves; a circumlocution of politicians – Sue Shanahan; a hilarity of hyenas – Mark West
Several readers winged me an anti-congressional item that has been whizzing around the Internet: “Baboons are the noisiest, most obnoxiously aggressive of all primates. So what group noun do we assign to these creatures? A congress of baboons!” This claim is bogus. A bunch of baboons is usually labeled a troop and occasionally a rumpus.
A menagerie of animals hide in words that describe our political process:
The verb to ostracize means “to exclude from a group by popular consent,” and hidden in that verb is an oyster. Rather than clamming up and floundering around, let’s go fishing for the animal origin of ostracize.
Oysters (from the Greek ostreon, “hard shell”) were a staple of the ancient Greek diet. In ancient Athens, a citizen could be banished by popular vote of other citizens, who gathered in the marketplace and wrote down the name of the undesirable on a tile or potsherd. If enough votes were dropped into an urn, the spurned citizen was sent from the city for five or 10 years. Because the shards of pottery resembled an oyster, they were called ostrakon, the Greek word for “oyster shell,” whence our verb for general exclusion
Before the adoption of the 20th Amendment to our Constitution in 1930, a president or congressperson who was defeated or failed to run for re-election in November remained in office with diminished effectiveness until the following March 3. The nickname lame duck for such hangers-on springs from the old hunter’s maxim “Never waste powder on a dead duck.” Because these ducks were not entirely dead until March 4, some clever wag called them lame ducks, and the label stuck.
Inaugurate literally means “to take omens from the flight of birds.” In ancient Rome, augurs would predict the outcome of an enterprise by the way the birds were flying. These soothsayer-magicians would tell a general whether or not to march or to do battle by the formations of the birds on the wing. They might even catch one and cut it open to observe its entrails for omens.
Nowadays, presidential candidates use their inauguration speeches to take flight on an updraft of words, rather than birds – and they often spill their guts for all to see.