Wednesday, July 28, 2010

P.S. To Yesterday's Post

Ivan is in bloomin' Croatia, so I'm sure she won't mind if I use one of her even days to make this very important addendum to yesterday's post about collective nouns:

This morning, while reading -- you guessed it -- Isak Dinesen, I came upon the phrase "a shoal of fish." This is interesting (to me and possibly only me), because James Lipton indicated that this usage had been replaced by "school of fish." In his explanation, he says that "school of fish" is actually a corruption of "shoal of fish," likely introduced when some monk read something wrong and then copied the error into later manuscripts. The logic, I suppose, is that it makes more sense that the collective noun should relate to where fish live than to how they are educated. Fish don't go to school. Duh.

However, if this theory is true, how did Dinesen come to use shoal?


Short answer: Because school and shoal are the same word, and neither the depth of the water nor education has anything to do with it.

Long answer: The confusion comes from the fact that we are really dealing with four words.
1. School (in the sense of school) from the Latin scola, meaning "school, lecture, discussion"
2. School (in the sense of "school of fish") from the Old English word scolu, meaning "troop or band of people, host, multitude, shoal, school (in school of fishes)"
3. Shoal (in the sense of "shoal of fish") from the same exact word as above
4. Shoal (in the sense of shallow water) from OE sceald, meaning "shallow"

Lipton chooses to follow some guy named Eric Partridge in thinking that the collective noun started as 4 and got corrupted to 1 by a coincidence of spelling. But he mentions some other guy named C. E. Hare, who argues that 2 and 3 are "variant spellings of the same word." Presumably he also argues that this word has a separate meaning from 1 and 4; Lipton doesn't say. Either way, I think Hare has it right, or is on the right track. The collective noun is using 2/3, not 1 or 4.

Here's why I think this: Lipton himself says that collective nouns tend to reveal the essence of something. Collective nouns like "a business of ferrets" reveal a what-ness about ferrets. An even better example is "a skein of geese," which refers to what they look like flying together. It isn't something I would have thought of, but it brings out a sort of poetic truth about geese, and that's what it's all about. Almost none of the animal-related collective nouns are so boring as to describe habitat. "A shallow water of fish" does not reveal the essence of fish. The way move, in massive groups, like a coordinated army, might.

"A school/shoal of fishes" only shows up in writing long after the Anglo-Saxons were gone, but it's worth mentioning that Anglo-Saxons sometimes went into battle under the protection of a shield-wall, which is exactly what it sounds like: a wall of shields overlapping each other. Like scales. Just saying. I mention Anglo-Saxons because scolu is in their language, but this battle formation went in and out of style for centuries, and would still have been known when collective nouns started to be written down.

Anyway, even though I'm siding with Hare, I'm perfectly willing to believe textual corruption was somehow involved. Words 2-4 could easily be fishy (or to use the ADJECTIVE OF RELATION, piscine), and you could make a case for 1. Whenever I hear the term "school of fish," I think of Madeline and her schoolmates following Miss Clavel. It isn't a huge stretch to think of a group of fish like pupils. Maybe the variant spellings arose because monks saw the root word and misinterpreted it as either a metaphor for fishy behavior or as a reference to where fish live. It's easy to see how all these meanings could have gotten mixed up, especially working from three similar root words. (In Old English, sc was sometimes pronounced sh, making it all the more confusing.)

Since we don't use school or shoal in the senses of 2 or 3 anymore, outside of the collective noun for fish, what we have all been doing (I would guess) is rationalizing "school/shoal of fish" using the meanings we know. Since those meanings coincidentally lend themselves to fishy interpretations, we have not been very bothered by this. Except for when someone asks the pesky question, "Is it 'school of fish' or 'shoal of fish'?" Here is the answer, or as close as I will ever get: It is both. They are equally correct. They also both happen to be reasonably clever puns that nobody will ever get, so don't laugh after you make them, or you will have to explain what a geek you are.

Incidentally, Isak Dinesen probably used shoal because she learned British English, and Lipton probably listed school and felt shoal had fallen into disuse because he speaks American English. In both countries one is marginally more popular than the other. Also, in case you are remotely interested, both words are also verbs for two specific ways that fish group. Shoaling fish are just hanging out together in a haphazard arrangement, schooling fish are moving in the same direction at the same speed in a coordinated fashion.

P.P.S. I am done with Isak Dinesen now so I will probably stop bringing her up all the time. I cannot say the same about etymology. Until I am invited to dinner parties this is my only outlet for all of these fascinating and crucial issues.

1 comment:

Pandora said...

Clearly we need to have a dinner party, you can't keep this sort of linguistic gem to yourself.