55

Etymonline does not hesitate to assume that "a pride of lions" is the same word as pride, noun of adjective proud.

There would be other possibilities, e.g. a connection with Latin praeda (prey). A group of lions might be a group of animals that go hunting together to get their prey.

Another possibility is Latin parata, past participle of parare (to prepare). A group of lions might be a group a dominant male animal has prepared for itself as its group.

Do we have here some specialists for etymology who might give their view as to

  1. pride of lions connected with proud/pride (convincing or not) -
  2. other possibilities.
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    Quite a rarity: a question showing decent basic research. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 15 '15 at 10:26
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    Interesting list of Terms of Venery: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… - it mentions the Book of St. Albans - google came up with "Because of their stately quality" - Pride: "impressive group" – mplungjan Jan 15 '15 at 10:48
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    I'll throw in another vague possibility - pride meaning 'ready for mating' or 'in heat'. As pride of lions is a very old collective noun I suppose it might just be remotely possible that naturalists of the age thought lions only grouped together for mating as males have a habit of being alone for long periods. – Frank Jan 15 '15 at 12:10
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    Aren't terms of venery supposed to be deliberately obscure words that are intended to confuse outsiders (non-hunters and commoners)? One wouldn't expect a natural etymology in that case. – Superbest Jan 16 '15 at 1:01
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    "A comment of Stack Exchange users". – Jon Hanna Jan 16 '15 at 10:02
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The simplest argument in favour of the conventional view; that pride in this sense is a use of the same word that refers to the quality of being proud, is that it is in keeping with many other such words for animals:

A shrewdness of apes.

A sleuth of Bears (sloth of bears appears to be slightly later).

A richesse (or richness) of martens.

An uncredibility of crocodiles

These are similarly qualities that involve a noun normally taken to refer to a quality humans may possess, and turning them to use as a collective noun.

All four here are from the 1486 Boke of Seynt Albans, as indeed is "pride of lions". The Modern Language Association of America apparently has a record of the use from around 1450, so the Book of St. Albans is not the first, but was one of the first records.

And considering that it also has such entries as "a doctrine of doctors" and "A disworship of Scots" it's clear that the practice of creating humorous versions of such collective nouns ("a click of web developers", "a promise of politicians", etc.) is nothing new. Humour has in fact always been part of the inspiration behind such names. More generally than that, there was always an element of word-play.

And there was again when such words were revived, having dropped out of use for several centuries but then revitalised because they are amusing, and because they provided a sort of vicarious knowledge; things one can know whose value is largely in enjoying knowing them. (Most subcultures today have these, the person who looks down upon the person who can recollect the comic book issue in which a particular superhero made his first appearance taking pride in knowing the scores of every final in a particular sport, and so on).

There are some such nouns that relate more directly to the behaviour of the actual animal itself, than to such personalised traits, so your suggestions cannot be fully ruled out.

However, these "traditional" collective nouns came into being in 15th century England, where a lion was much more often seen on a flag or a crest, than on a savannah, and where it was indeed associated with pride.

Lions were previously used as an image of the sin of pride, as in this Book of Hours from circa 1475 where a personification of Pride rides on a lion's back:

This makes the idea that the association was indeed with the quality of being proud, the most likely.

65

The oldest citations of the word in the OED are from the 15th century, and there is no indication in those where exactly they got the term from back in those days.

Phonetically, it would be somewhat difficult to derive pride from Latin parata. If borrowed straight from Latin, you’d expect it to either simply be a *parata of lions or something like a *parrot of lions (or *parat, or however the spelling might have ended up). If it had gone through French, it would probably have ended up being the same as parry (since Latin -āta gives (Old) French -ée, which was usually borrowed as -y early on). And then there’s the form of parata that went through Italian or Spanish before entering French and thence English: parade. But pride would be quite problematic to derive from parata.

The same, though less insurmountably so, is true of Latin praeda. That certainly could not have gone through French to become English pride, because we already have the French version of praeda in English: prey. The d was regularly lost in French. It could, theoretically, have been borrowed straight from Latin, but equating a stressed ⟨ae⟩ from Latin with a 15th-century (i.e., pre-Great Vowel Shift) English ⟨i⟩ would be quite problematic. Latin ⟨ae⟩ is nearly always [iː] in Modern English, which goes back to an earlier pronunciation [eː] in Middle English. The pronunciation of pride with an [aɪ] diphthong, combined with the consistent spelling with an ⟨i⟩ all the way back to the 15th century, is fairly good evidence that it was in fact an original [iː] sound. And this is not how Latin ⟨ae⟩ was represented.

There is another piece of circumstantial evidence: terms of venery in English are often quite transparently meant to be amusing or exaggerated gibes at perceived characteristics of the animal in question. They are inventions of the 13th and 14th centuries, and when their number and complexity started approaching the ludicrous, so did their silliness. Examples of terms of venery that quite clearly are ‘personifications’, as it were, of perceived characteristics of the animal described (taken from the Wikipedia page linked to by mplungjan in a comment) include:

  • a shrewdness of apes/monkeys
  • a bellowing of bullfinches (from its rather unpleasant cry)
  • a flutter of butterflies
  • a pounce of cats (from their tendency to pounce quickly on their prey)
  • a peep of chickens
  • a chattering/clattering of choughs (from their cry)
  • an intrusion of cockroaches
  • a bask/float of crocodiles (from their habit of floating near the surface, basking in the sun)
  • a murder of crows (seen as a harbinger of death)
  • a waddling of ducks
  • etc.

Since lions are—or were, at least, in the Middle Ages—very commonly used as a symbol for pride, bravery, and strength personified (think Richard Lionheart, etc.), it makes good sense to use pride in particular for this perceivedly very proud animal.

So while there may be no way to know with absolute certainty whether the term pride of lions really is a loan from somewhere else,1 I would say that the accumulated evidence in favour of it simply being a perfectly common (in the world of venery terms) use of the regular noun pride is quite a lot more convincing than the evidence that speaks for loan words.


1 Short of there being some obscure old source that actually happens to tell us conclusively of how and when this particular term was first used, and by whom. There may be such a source, but I am unaware of it if there is. The Book of St. Albans does not give any in-depth information, just gives the same blasé mention as the OED and Etymonline, which just shows that already in the 15th century, at least, the term was considered just an extension of the normal word pride, whether that is etymologically justified or not.

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    +1 - "There is another piece of circumstantial evidence: terms of venery in English are often quite transparently meant to be amusing or exaggerated gibes at perceived characteristics of the animal in question." Exactly what I found after this past hour of reading. – anongoodnurse Jan 15 '15 at 12:02
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    For the crows, I always thought that the idea was "many crows = an abandoned corpse = murder". – Superbest Jan 16 '15 at 1:04
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    Congrats on your +50. It's an excellent answer. I did find three earlier manuscripts that also list pride of lions without explanation, and I think yours is dead on. We do the same thing today: a rash of dermatologists, a puddle of urologists, etc. Apparently it was a game noblemen played on hunts, like ghost on car trips. – anongoodnurse Jan 17 '15 at 7:19
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The actual list: (column 2, #1) A Pride of Lionys

Excerpt from the Book of St. Albans

Frankly, a blogger's guess is as good as any I read:

A pride of lions comes from the felines' place at the top of the jungle food chain. Full-grown lions have no natural predators (excluding humans, of course) and the females are ferocious hunters. Also, the male lion's mane of hair has often been liked to a king's crown. As the nobility of the wild, lions were anthropomorphically given the same pride that human royalty carried due to their place in the social food chain. Pride, in this sense, is not a negative term but relates to a dignified sense of self that is proportionate to one's high standing.

The first recorded coat of arms (on a shield) was granted to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, by King Henry I of England in 1127 A.D. It shous four red lions on a field of blue. Clearly, lions were associated with royalty early on.

enter image description here

Both the Wide World of Words and The Word Detective imply that "pride of lions" comes from the Book of St. Albans (photocopy above), supposedly written by Dame Juliana Barnes, a prioress of the nunnery of Sopwell near St Albans. So,** many conventional names for groups of animals are poetic inventions (nothing to do with Latin) that one can trace back to the fifteenth century.** Note that the actual list includes such groupings as a superfluity of nuns, a fellowship of yomen, a Lordship of monks, and Pontifical of Prelates. All fanciful, none based on Latin.

The first collection in English is The Book of St Albans (1486), an early printed work from a small press at St Albans. The book is likely a compilation of earlier works, probably written in French. In a section on hunting, Dame Juliana Barnes wrote the many names for groups of animals, the most famous being a murder of crows. The book was hugely popular, and was reprinted at Westminster the same year by the famous Wynkyn de Worde.

This popularity kept the lists of terms for beasts and birds in people’s minds. Their memory was perpetuated in later centuries by antiquarians such as Joseph Strutt, whose Sports and Pastimes of England was published in 1801. Though some of Dame Juliana’s terms, such as business of ferrets, fall of woodcocks, and shrewdness of apes are wonderful to read and have a certain resonance, nobody seems to have used them in real life.

We’ve got to make a distinction, of course, between these fanciful or poetic collective names and the many examples we use every day, like pride of lions, pack of dogs, flight of stairs, flock of birds, string of racehorses, and gaggle of geese. These are common and unremarkable, though in some cases hardly less exotic and mysterious in origin than any in The Book of St Albans all those years ago.

The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by Joseph Twadell Shipley (1984), it is stated that "in venery, a gentleman could not qualify as a sportsman unless he knew the proper group names (including a pride of lions)." He also attributes the names to The Book of St. Albans.

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    Actually, the word pontifical for prelates does come from Latin, pontifex, "bridge builder" -- the bridge in question being between Earth and Heaven. It was a title of priests in Ancient Rome and is one of the Pope's titles. A "Pontifical Mass" is one celebrated by a prelate. – Andrew Leach Jan 15 '15 at 12:54
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    @AndrewLeach Well, granted. Bad example, I guess. One can say a superfluity of nuns is based on Latin as well, but the intent was that these names were poetic, not Latin based. – anongoodnurse Jan 15 '15 at 13:01

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