Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Collective nouns are a curiously eccentric feature of English, whereby evocative or pun-inspired terms are used to describe a group of animals, people, or items. Many of these are common parts of our everyday language--a pride of lions, a murder of crows, a host of angels, a flight of stairs--and have their roots in older vocabulary and terminology that makes sense to etymologists but are often obscure or invisible to the rest of us. (Indeed, the unpacking of some of these terms is a fun game for many scholars of language.) But there are other terms that are more elaborate and humorous or illuminating: a shrivel of critics, for example, or, reflecting the political contexts and religious tensions of their origins, a term like superfluity of nuns.
Many of these terms come from Early Modern “venery” texts--the hunt and its proper codes, customs, and language--which compiled the proper collective nouns that all well-bred gentlemen (and some ladies) should know to hold their heads high in courtly company. (The most famous of these is The Book of Saint Albans: Containing Treatises on Hawking, Hunting, Cote-Armour, Finishing, and Blasting of Arms. Not surprisingly, the rise of venery texts paralleled the rise of the complex and deliberately archaic heraldic language of blazonry.) In effect, these books and their terms were used as markers of social standing: if you knew that a group of foxes is a skulk, you stood apart from and higher in the hierarchy than some poor rube who called that same group a pack. And, as is usually the case with such arbitrary class markers, the lists became increasingly obscure and elaborate as their exclusionary value grew.
Many writers have studied these lists and their social significance, but the go-to text on the subject remains James Lipton's wry and witty An Exaltation of Larks, first published in 1968, with subsequent revisions and expansions in the years since. But Woop Studios has a really lovely hardback volume, A Compendium of Collective Nouns, that includes many striking illustrations throughout. And both include some intriguing insights about the collective nouns for badgers.
In this case, of course, we're generally talking about Eurasian badgers, as the other species only gather in groups when a mother is caring for her young. And, predictably, the badger terms prove to be stubborn, especially the common term cete. Lipton notes that the origins of cete are obscure:
Hare makes the interesting guess that it may be the Chaucerian word for “city.” In the O[xford] E[nglish] D[ictionary], the word is found among the multifarious uses of set: “A badger's earth or warren is properly and generally called a ‘set’ or ‘cete.’” A reader of the first edition of this book has suggested that cete might be a copyists erroneous transcription of cote, an Anglo-Saxon word with several meanings in Middle English, one of them chamber. The root word survives today in dovecote and cottage--and badgers do live in underground chambers. 
In Woop Studios's Compendium, the mystery deepens, as Lipton's work is cited, but to an odd end: "What is a cete, exactly, and why should badgers be considered one? Lipton, in his Exaltation of Larks, believes it derives from the Latin for company." But as we see above, Lipton makes no mention at all of Latin or “company,” so although this may be the case, it’s certainly not in Lipton's book. The Compendium’s authors do note that “In contemporary parlance, a sett refers not to a grouping of badgers but to their den, a badger sett.” And again, this is only the case for Eurasian badgers, as they’re the only species to have extensive and long-used lairs. They do offer two other terms for consideration: a clan, and a colony, though without much in the way of commentary.
Chloe Rhodes’s An Unkindness of Ravens offers more information and is, in its own way, the most illuminating of the three. She notes that “Many collective nouns that appear in the early manuscripts are derived from the animal’s habitat...and it’s tempting to link this ‘cete’ to the sett we now know of as the badger's home....” Yet she provides even more intriguing options as well:
Complicating this theory, though, is the fact that the Egerton Manuscript uses ‘a syght’ of badgers. Syght meant sight, and Hodgkin insists that since badgers have never been known for their eyesight this must have been a transcriber’s mistake. The animals were believed to possess magical powers, however, and as creatures of the night were thought by some to have prophetic powers—sometimes known as ‘second sight’—as this eighteenth-century rhyme shows:
Should one hear a badger call,
And then an ullot cry,
Make thy peace with God, good soul,
For thou shall shortly die.
So now we have five candidates: cete, cote, clan, colony, and sight. Cete is the clear favourite, but I must say that Rhodes’s inclusion of sight to the list delights me, especially as it fits broader badger lore and their associations with magic and earthly mystery. So perhaps in more magical contexts and writings a sight of badgers is the proper collective, while in our Muggleish, mundane world a cete of badgers refers to the more everyday gatherings of badgers.
 James Lipton, An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 59.
 Woop Studios, A Compendium of Collective Nouns: From an Armory of Aardvarks to a Zeal of Zebras (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013), p. 21.
 Clare Rhodes, An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns (2014), accessed through Google Books; print citation to come.