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shameless pleading

Smuck

Stop it right now.

Dear Word Detective: My daughter learned in elementary school that a group of jellyfish is called a “smuck.” This is suspiciously close to the jelly and jam company called “Smuckers.” Can you tell us if there is any relationship between these two words? — Margaret.

Suspiciously close indeed, and perhaps yet more evidence of the commercialization of childhood. On the other hand, it’s a bit hard to imagine why the Smuckers people would want their product associated in tiny minds with nasty stinging sea creatures. Children are impressionable, and names matter. I myself waited until I was thirty years old before I tried eggplant, simply because I found the name itself so repellent. But then I tried it, and discovered that I should have trusted my prejudice, because eggplant is the most revolting so-called food on the planet. Yuck. But the point is that early impressions can leave a lasting legacy of loathing. So I guess the moral of all that is that, if you’re Smuckers, don’t use a jellyfish as your mascot. And please don’t ever make eggplant jam.

Collective nouns, terms for groups of animals, people or things, are a perennial subject of questions I receive, and when I post my answers on my website at word-detective.com, the resulting discussion can become weirdly contentious. A column I posted a few years ago about “a murder of crows” has garnered 20 comments so far, several of which seem to consist of one reader snarling “Sez who?” at another. The tussle about such terms is usually over whether they are “real” terms commonly used by experts (even if in the misty past), or frivolous new inventions (such as “a brace of orthodontists” or “a disputation of lawyers”) concocted by modern chucklemongers.

As I explained at the time, many of the terms we use today, such as “a host of angels,” date back at least to the 15th century and were first documented in a compilation called The Book of St. Albans,” which was (we think) written by Dame Juliana Barnes, prior of a convent in England. The modern interest in such terms was spawned by James Lipton’s marvelous 1968 collection “An Exaltation of Larks,” which divided such terms into three categories: terms found in the 15th century collections that remain in use today (such as “an exaltation of larks” and “a string of ponies”); old terms (such as “a cast of hawks” and “a knot of toads”) that were once common but have fallen into obscurity, and, lastly, oddities from old collections of such terms. That last category offers such weirdness as “a rage of maidens” (employing “rage” in the 14th century sense of “jesting, fun; riotous or wanton behavior”) and “a cete of badgers,” which may come from the Latin “coetus,” meaning “meeting, assembly.” Lipton called such names “terms of venery” (from the Latin “venari,” to hunt), though the category is broader than merely game animals, unless there’s a hunting season for lawyers, in which case you can make up your own joke.

Since most ancient lists consisted simply of such terms defined without explanation, Lipton and other modern scholars have speculated about the origin of the term where it seems reasonable (such as with “cete”), but are, more often than not, as mystified as the rest of us, which brings us to jellyfish. Lipton lists not “smuck” but “smack” as a term for a group of jellyfish. But even “smack” in this sense is absent from the Oxford English Dictionary, so I’m going to assume that the “smack/smuck” contradiction dates back to those misty pasts and bad proofreading in the 15th century. Determining which is “real” and historically accurate won’t get us any nearer to an explanation of why in the world anyone would call a bunch of jellyfish a “smack” or a “smuck.”

And now it’s time to don my Mister Grumpy cap and fulminate. Teaching a small child that a group of jellyfish is called a “smuck” is not a good idea because it’s not really true. Today, as opposed to back in the 15th century, a group of jellyfish is called either a “bloom” or a “swarm.” In practical use you can get by with a “school” or a “bunch.” Calling such a glob of the unpleasant little critters a “smuck” is cute, but not a good way to communicate with anyone not in the mood for cuteness.

Furthermore, as long as I’m being cranky, I understand that the fact that jellyfish are not actually fish (quelle surprise!) has led some aquariums in the US to adopt the term “jellies” or “sea jellies” instead. Oh, please. Newsflash: crayfish aren’t “actually fish” either. And groundhogs aren’t really hogs, prairie dogs aren’t even close to being dogs, and woodchucks, alas, don’t actually chuck wood. Somebody needs to get a grip.

1 comment to Smuck

  • Elaine

    Very interesting! But, you did not bring up the word “schmuck” which was the first thing I thought of when I saw this issue of the Word Detective! And, is also the first work brought up when you do an auto search for the word “smuck”

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