Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bovine Bull

Kelly from Alanson called in to ask about the phrase “a fink of cows.” He defined it as a group of 12 or more cows. The Oxford English Dictionary lists two separate nouns: an Afrikaans finch and a pejorative term for a police informant.

An internet search revealed that the phrase a flink of cows shows up on numerous web sites, all of them writing about animal collective nouns—names for animal groups. The thing about collective names is that they are invariably useless. Aside from words such as herd, flock, and school, they are not used in professional situations. You won’t hear zookeepers speak of a skulk of foxes, a glint of goldfish, or a scurry of squirrels. The mere existence of “a blessing of unicorns” should serve as a giant reality check.

The majority of such lists are filled with imaginative, poetic, and punning constructs. They may be cute and sometimes clever, but they have no basis in reality. That doesn’t stop people from collecting them, of course. The classic example is James Lipton’s Exultation of Larks.

The OED does list the verb flink, but it has nothing to do with cows. Instead, it is defined as “to behave in a cowardly manner.” Come to think of it, there is a cow in coward.

SIDEBAR: Animal Collective

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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