These Are a Few of My Favorite...Reference Books?
June 19, 2013
It seemed like an innocent enough question. We were watching the swans in the park swim between the flotilla of geese, and I just happened to think of it. "I wonder what a female swan is called."
That didn’t satisfy. "Well, the male swan is a cob and the babies are cygnets, not chicks. Stands to reason the girl swan would have her own name."
Smart phones were produced, but due to lack of coverage, the debate raged on. When we got back to the house, I decided against the Internet and pulled out a book that stays by my bedside in case of late night browsing emergencies, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. The entry on swans was a long one, but it did indeed confirm that a male swan is a cob and the female is a pen. (Nope, not a typo. Pen with a ‘p’. The dictionary is sadly silent on why.) It mentioned the ancient legend of swans singing before they die, and the idea that the souls of great poets become swans after they die – hence Shakespeare, the Swan of Avon.
Feeling vindicated but still curious, I turned to the book beside the dictionary, James Lipton’s An Exaltation of Larks. This odd but fascinating book is a listing of group nouns with explanations, some dating to the fifteenth century books of hunting. A group of swans is not a flock or a gaggle but a wedge (presumably on the water, for the wakes left behind) or herd. Geese are only a gaggle on the ground, by the way. Geese in flight are a skein. Ducks in flight are a flock, but on the water, what you have is a paddling of ducks.
I probably will go to the Internet to research the origin of ‘pen’ – I just know there’s a story there – but I’m glad to have my curious shelf of reference books to call upon.
North Oak Branch