And chicken fingers. Lots of chicken fingers.

Dear Word Detective: As part of my weight-gaining regimen, I often drink a Snapple. Today the cap Real Fact #752 was “A group of twelve or more cows is called a flink.” I cannot find much information on this word, though I now know that cows may have regional accents. Can you hang a tale on this word? — Charlie N.

Feh. Snapple is for pikers. Our local newspaper prints the school lunch menu, and I noticed recently that the little monsters seem to get something called “Bosco Sticks” as a main course at least three times a week. Bosco Sticks are not, as I had expected, giant chocolate bars. They turn out to be Brobdingnagian breadsticks filled with tomato sauce and cheese (“Just thaw, bake or deep fry, and top with butter and parmesan cheese for a delicious breadstick!”). Yeah, don’t forget the butter. Now we know why Johnny can’t breathe. But for quick weight gain, Bosco Sticks sound like just the ticket. You’ll have to give up climbing stairs, of course.

Unfortunately, and I say this as someone who willingly falls for every cute or quirky animal story that comes galloping down the pike, that thing about cows having regional accents is not, as far as anyone knows, true. Back in 2006, an English dairy farmers’ group called the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers were preparing to market a new line of regional cheeses. A public relations firm working for the group contacted John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at the University of London, and asked him if it was “possible” that cows, like some birds (and cheeses, I guess), might have regional accents. Professor Wells said that it was, of course, in theory, “possible.” Presto, within days he was being quoted around the world as saying that cows did, in fact, exhibit regional twangs and drawls in their moos. Which they maybe do, maybe don’t, but nobody knows. Wanna buy some cheese?

“Flink” as a collective noun for a group of twelve (or more) cows is, as you’ve probably gathered, a bit of a mystery. The only “flink” listed by reputable dictionaries is “flink” as a 19th century US rural dialect verb meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “to behave in a cowardly manner,” and the word itself is probably simply a variant of “flinch.” The “cow” in “cowardly” is as close as “flink” gets to livestock in real dictionaries.

“Flink” is, however, found all over the internet, variously defined as “a group of twelve cows,” “at least twelve cows,” and so on. Obviously it’s not impossible for a word or usage to originate on the internet. But this isn’t “lolcat” or “spam,” and “flink” is widely presented as an established term on lists of collective animal nouns (“pod” of whales, “murder” of crows, etc.). Something is fishy.

Poking around on the trail of “flink,” I came upon what may be the explanation for its apparently sudden appearance sometime around 2002. In an article in one of the behind-the-scenes parts of Wikipedia, a user suggests that “flink” might be a fanciful invention based on the “cow” of that “cowardly” in the OED definition, and that, furthermore, “flink” might actually be a “mountweazel” that has, so to speak, escaped into the wild.

A “mountweazel,” as I explained a few months ago, is a spurious entry deliberately included in a dictionary or encyclopedia in order to trap plagiarists. (The name comes from a fictitious entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, supposedly a famous photographer of rural mailboxes, included in the 1975 edition of The Columbia Encyclopedia.) It seems entirely possible that “flink” was invented as such a mountweazel for a text, perhaps an electronic dictionary, which was then widely plagiarized on the internet, giving the imaginary “flink” a life of its own. Of course, if “flink” is still popping up on the internet in a few years, it’ll be time to begin considering it a “real” word fit for “real” dictionaries.

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