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School, as a group of fish, entered Middle English:

late Middle English: from Middle Low German, Middle Dutch schōle, of West Germanic origin; related to Old English scolu ‘troop’. (NOAD)

Shoal, meaning the same thing, entered English two to five hundred years later in the 16th century:

late 16th century: probably from Middle Dutch schōle ‘troop’. (NOAD)

Both come from Middle Dutch schole.

Why does English bear two cognate words for a group of fish?

Of course, why questions are always impossible. But what is the historical context for the entrance of the later word (shoal) when school was already around?

  • Was school not used in this sense in the 1500s? When shoal first arrived did the two words carry different meanings? NOAD, indeed offers slightly different definitions today: school is a large group of fish and shoal is a large group of fish swimming together. Is (and was) this difference significant?

  • Was there significant Dutch influence at the time to explain the addition? Peter Shor says yes here, especially related to seafaring, and this white paper indicates scientific influence of Dutch on English here. But does scientific and maritime influence explain the addition of a word that English already has, and so similar? (Maybe we have no issue with this.)

  • Did school fall out of favor before or after the entrance of shoal?

  • Is there evidence of either word affecting the pronunciation of the other?

  • Maybe 'shoal' was introduced because 'school' has another meaning? – Kate Bunting Jan 20 at 8:44
  • The Dutch word "school" today still means "shoal" (of fish) and "school" (educational institution). – user800 Jan 24 at 16:10
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The two terms actually refer to two related but distinct activities:

Any group of fish that stays together for social reasons is said to be shoaling, and if the shoal is swimming in the same direction together, it is schooling.

From: Pitcher, T.J. (1992). Behaviour of Teleost Fishes. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 363.

Shoaling fish can shift into a disciplined and coordinated school, then shift back to an amorphous shoal within seconds. Such shifts are triggered by changes of activity from feeding, resting, travelling or avoiding predators.

From: Moyle PB and Cech JJ 2003. Fishes, an introduction to ichthyology. 5th ed, Benjamin Cummings.

4

Broken History

Old English scôlu/scâlu/sceolu (OE sc = ʃ), ‘multitude, troop’ applied mainly to groups of humans, and in one case angels: Seó deóre scolu, ‘the heavenly host’. With a discernible line of transmission through Middle English to Early Modern, the etymology of school (fish) would be both certain and unremarkable. Earlier scholars, such as Samuel Johnson in his 1755 dictionary, simply list the OE word.

The problem with this scenario is centuries of silence: Middle English words which could have derived from the OE word do not appear until the late 14th c. at the earliest. This has led modern scholars to suggest that scôlu, as so much OE vocabulary, did not long survive the upheavals of the Norman conquest. Instead, school, then shoal (1570s), resulted from an interaction with the Middle Dutch/Low German cognate schole.

Early medieval fisherfolk or mariners, of course, did not suddenly forget what they called a school of fish, waiting patiently for some random Fleming to pass by and supply a word; historically, it will have been a case of gradual influence as had occurred with countless French or Scandinavian words supplanting native Old English.

That two West Germanic languages spoken by sea-faring, mercantile peoples along the North Sea would influence each other for centuries is a matter of course. About a third of William’s invading army was from Flanders and many remained. Fleeing oppressive Spanish rule and natural disasters, the largest contingent of immigrants to Great Britain from the 11th–17th c. was from the Low Countries. By 1527, there were tens of thousands of Flemings in London while an estimated third of the population of Scotland had roots in Flanders.

In the late Middle Ages important North Sea and Baltic ports joined together into the Hanseatic League, making the closely related Low German the lingua franca of trade. This is why many etymologies are unable to pinpoint a Low German or Dutch origin: the two are basically dialects of the same language.

Dutch influence was strong in Norfolk, especially Norwich, trading first in fish, then wool to Flemish weavers. By ship, a Dutch or Flemish port could be reached in a day; the overland route to London took four. Late in Elizabeth’s reign, there were some 4000 Dutch Protestants in Norwich, about a third of the population. In turn, dissenting Calvinists fled England for the Netherlands, and as their children became more Dutch in language and culture than English, many decided to emigrate to America.

Middle English Variants

Attestations in ME are rare:

Thei falle thikkere than heryng fletes In-myddes the se In here scole. — Laud Troy Book (LdMisc 595), c1425(c1400), 14205.
A scole of fysch — Terms of Association (Rwl D.328),1450, 604.

In modern orthography, this would be school — with the accent on modern. I have been unable to find school of + animate noun prior to 1800, though that spelling becomes more common for an educational institution already in the 1550s. There is, however, another word with the same meaning:

Sculle, of the heed. Craneum.
Sculle, of a fysshe. ExamenPromptorium Parvulorum (ca.1440), Albert Way, ed., London 1865.

Attributed to Geoffrey the Grammarian, a friar in Lynn (now King’s Lynn), Norfolk, the work is the very first extensive English-Latin dictionary and attests to yet a third term, but with a short vowel. This means that in Elizabethan and Stuart England, there were three words — school, scull, and shoal — all meaning the same thing, though none limited to marine animals.

Scull

Modern speakers are not likely familiar with scull of fish; except for limited regional usage, it virtually disappeared in the 19th c. and was never current in the US. Yet both Shakespeare and Milton use the word as a synonym of school or shoal:

And there they fly or die, like scaled sculls
Before the belching whale; — Troilus and Cressida, 1602, 5.5, 3478f.

Forthwith the Sounds and Seas, each Creek and Bay
With Fry innumerable swarm and shoals
Of Fish, that with their fins and shining scales
Glide under the green wave in Sculls that oft
Bank the mid Sea … — PL 7.399–403.

The word is well attested into the 19th c. If written with a single l, there is the possibility its pronunciation is meant to be as school, but such texts are included here.

the comfort of the corporall life resteth herein, where as christ commaundeth peter to caste his Nettes, and peter obeieth, and taketh a great scull of fish: — Thomas Becon, A New Postil, 1566. EEBO

The youth in sculs flocke and runne together, & craue that they may haue Agnes their ludibrious pray. — John Foxe, Aces and Monuments, 1570.

… a common plague, doth creepe alonge the realme as skulls of fishe, swimmes vp and downe the streame: — Thomas Churchyard, The firste parte of Churchyardes chippes contayning twelue seuerall labours, 1575. EEBO

These are called Bassinates, and vse to go in great companies togither, as though they were skulles of herrings, …— Raphael Holinshead, History of Scotland, 1585.

…hee hath by this started a couey of bucks, or roused a scull of phesants: — John Lyly, Midas, 1592. EEBO

… and in depe flouds, where skulles of fish doe play: — Thomas Churchyard, Churchyards Challenge, 1593. EEBO

hauing diuers fishermen aboord our barke they all concluded that there was a great skull of fish, … — John Davys, The worldes hydrographical discription [sic], 1595.

… we did perceive a large opening, we called it Shole-hope : neer this Cape we came to anchor in fifteen fadome, where we took great store of Cod fish, for which we altered the name and called it Cape Cod. Here we saw skulls of herrings, mackerels, and other small fish in great abundance. — Gabriel Archer, Relation of Captain Gosnols Voyage, began the sixth and twentieth of March, 1602 in: Charles Bradbury, History of Kennebunk Port, Kennebunk ME,1837.

a great scul of whales: when we met with a mightie bank of ice to wind-ward of vs, being by supposition seuen or eight leagues long, wee steering south south-east to get cleere of the same: we met all alongst this ice a mightie scull of whales: — Samuel Purchas, Purchas His Pilgrims, pt. 3, 1625. EEBO

in this sound was such skulls of salmon swimming too and Skuls of salmon in cawk sound: — Luke Fox, North-vvest Fox, 1635. EEBO

scull of Frerys, c: a company of fryers or brethren. — Elisha Coles, An English dictionary explaining the difficult terms…, 1677. EEBO

Assuming the original author only knew the word from Shakespeare and Milton, Todd’s 1818 revision of Johnson’s dictionary observes that the “word is still applied, on the coast of Norfolk and Suffolk, to herrings,” i.e., the very place where Geoffrey the Grammarian first recorded its use.

Webster’s 1832 dictionary has the following entry:

Skull, for shoal or school, of fish. [Not used]

Since Webster uses obsolete to note no longer current vocabulary, I take “not used” to mean not used in the North American English of his day. There appears to be one exception: Sandra Clarke (Newfoundland and Labrador English, 2010) notes that scull was once current in that Canadian province but is now “obsolete.”

One of the last usages I could find in British print sources describes fishing off the Isle of Man:

And it is also enacted, that any vessel should reveal the discovery of a scull of fish to the next, and so on through the fleet. — Charles John Shore, Lord Teignmouth, Sketches of the Coasts and Islands of Scotland, the Isle of Man, 1836.

By this point, however, shoal had already become the preferred term in the common speech of the British Isles. At the beginning of the 19th c., British authors are footnoting school for their readers as maritime jargon, and with the eventual disappearance of scull from general speech, shoal is what’s left.

Shoal

Shoal ‘shallow (adj., n.)’ directly descends from OE scealde (adj.) and ultimately from a Germanic root that produced the River Scheldt [Du. Schelde], named for its shallowness. Though the final d begins to disappear in the 16th c., it was retained by some writers well into the 18th:

…the reefs and shoalds from these low sandy islands have always prevented our people from striking across through those islands, … — William Coats, The geography of Hudson's Bay; being the remarks of Captain W. Coats, in many voyages to that locality, between the years 1727 and 1751, London, Hakluyt Society, 1852, 59.

Shoal as a collective term has a different history, instead coming as school and scull from schole. Dutch sch is not a trigraph for [ʃ] as it is in German, but s + digraph: [sx], with the [x] moving toward [ç] before front vowels, especially in Flemish. How English renders Dutch/Flemish sch varies between sk and [ʃ]. The Schuykill in Philadelphia is sk, as are most Dutch place names in America, but the Scheldt is either [ʃɛlt] or [skɛlt], with most American sources only giving the latter. That the same Dutch word can yield school, scull and shoal is thus less problematic than it seems. Adding regionalisms you’ll meet shortly like shool or skole complete the paradigm of how English squeezes s + non-native fricative into its own phonology.

In the 16th c. shoal ‘large group of unspecified size’ and the verb meaning to gather into such a group is usually spelled shole. The first two attestations from the Early English Books Online corpus predate the 1570s estimate of etymonline:

than the frenchmen valiantly set fote to the erthe and approched their ennemyes / and the gauntoyse in lykewise set on them: there they beganne to shole and to fight eche with other: — Jean Froissart; John Bourchier, Lord Berners, trans., Cronycles of Englande, Fraunce, Spaygne, Portyngale, Scotlande, Bretayne, Flaunders, and other places adioynyng, 1525. EEBO

… it will make a goodly and cleere light and shining, and all the fishes that see this light will runne in a shole togither, and will fall into the net: — Girolamo Tuscelli, William Ward, trans., _ The seconde part of the Secretes of Master Alexis of Piemont_, 1560. EEBO

it happened once in ye winter season that there went a shole of apes togither from one Countrie to another, … — Sir Thomas North, The morall philosophie of Doni drawne out of the auncient writers, 1570. EEBO

a shole — a multitude; taken of fishe, whereof some going in great companies, are sayde to swimme in a shole: — Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calender, 1579. EEBO

…they come altogither and compasse the seales round about in a ring, that lye sunning themselues togither vpon the yse, comonly foure or fiue thousand in a shoale, and so they inuade them euery man with his clubbe in his hand: — Giles Fletcher, Of the Russe Common Wealth, 1591. EEBO

a shoal of geese on the dry-sommersand in their hoarce language (som-times lowely-lowd) suing for succour to som moyst-ful clowd; … Joshua Sylvester, trans., Du Bartas his deuine weekes and workes translated, 1611. EEBO

… for the busses driving at sea, break the skull or Shole of herrings, and then the herrings flee near the shore, and through the sounds, where these small boats, with those nets they have, take them: — John Smith, England's Improvement Reviv’d, 1670. EEBO

Tueſday, Wedneſday, and a great part of Thurſday the 20th day of March, being ſpent in the preliminaries, and in receiving and reading the ſhoal of Petitions, con­cerning undue Elections and Returns, … — Edmund Bohun, An Address to the Freemen and Freeholders of the Nation, Part Two, London, 1682.

In the year 1883 the great meteor shoal of the Leonids (for so this shower is called) attained its greatest distance from the sun, and then commenced to return. Each year the earth crossed the orbit of the meteors; but the shoal was not met with, and no noteworthy shower of stars was perceived. — Sir Robert Stawell Ball, The Story of the Heavens, 1890.

School

The ME scole ‘school’ continues in Tudor and Stuart England, but over the course of the 18th c. seems to have disappeared from general use in Britain. In America, it becomes the standard term, eliciting comment on both sides of the Atlantic mid 19th c.

… a lordship of monkes supfluyte of nonnes prees of prestes Scole of fysshe Scole of scolers cluster of grapes cluster of nottes cluster of carles cluster of tame cattes destructon of wilde caties boste of souldyours… — John Lydgate, [The horse the ghoos & the sheep], 1477. EEBO

The English fascination with coining fanciful collective nouns for various grouping of people and animals begins with Walter of Bibbesworth’s Anglo-Normal poem for instructing children, Le Tretiz, ca. 1250. The Terms of Association mentioned earlier and Lydgate’s work further the tradition.

In Summer 1659, what apparently was a hammerhead shark was caught off the Dover coast, a sensation that warranted a broadside in typically breathless style:

Dooing you to vunderstande that on Thurſdaye, the xvj. daye of the present month of June, in the yeare of our Lord God M. D. lxix. [16 Jun. 1569] this ſtraunge fiſhe was taken between Callis and Douver, by ſertayne Engliſh fiſher-men whych were a fyſhing for mackrell. And this ſtraunge and merueylous fyſhe, folowynge after the ſcooles of mackrell, came ruſhinge in to the fiſher-mens netts, and brake and tore their nettes maruveilouſlie… Joseph Lily, ed., A Collection of Seventy-Nine Black-Letter Ballads and Broadsides, London,1867.

This usage of scole along the Dover coast will prove significant some two centuries later. A spelling skole, however, may suggest school, or perhaps shoal with the alternative hard consonant for the Dutch [sx]:

In our passage ouer from S. Laurence to the maine we had exceeding great store of Bonitos and Albocores, which are a greater kind of fish: … And this skole of fish continued with our ship for the space of fiue or sixe weekes... — George Raymond, James Lancaster, A voyage … to the East Indies …in the yeere 1591, in: Richard Hakluyt, Hakluyt’s Collection of the Early Travels, and Discoveries, of the English Nation, vol. II, London 1810, 592.

For disembarking out of the West Indies, anno 1583, within three or foure dayes after, we mett a scole2 of them, which left us not till we came to the ilands of Azores, nere a thousand leagues. At other times I have noted the like.
But some may say, that in the sea are many scoles of this kinde of fish, and how can a man know if they were the same ?
2 A shoal or scull of fish ; that is, separated from the main body. This is Horne Tooke’s derivation. We think the term is more commonly applied to the main body itself. — C. R. Drinkwater Bethune, ed., The observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knt, in his voyage into the south sea in the year 1593, London, 1847.

Where Sir Richard was born is unknown, but his father, John Hawkins, was from Plymouth, Devon. The editor preparing this text for republication in 1847 felt his readers needed a footnote to explain scole.

for Iesus standing vpon the shore may happely perceiue some scole of fish comming on that side, whereof there is some hope: — Roger Fenton, A Treatise of Vsurie, 1611. EEBO

nay sometimes when we dip them [oysters] in vinegar, we may, for sauce to one bit, devour alive a schole of little animals, which, whether they be fishes or worms, i am not so sure, as i am, that i have, by the help of convenient glasses, seen great numbers of them swimming up and down in less than a Sawcer full of vinegar: — Robert Boyle, Occasional Reflections, 1665. EEBO

Two Poems, 1808

An anonymously published hymn to the British navy and a poem by notorious Shakespeare forger William Henry Ireland depicting the life of a fisher boy through the four seasons both show that while many Britons are no longer familiar with school of fish, sailors and fishermen still use the word:

Oſt single;—but with num'rous Scool * seem skimming
The foaming surface, more than simple swimming.
————
* A “Scool of Fish,” implies a flock; an immense number. — The cruise : a poetical sketch, in eight cantos / by a Naval Officer, London, 1808.

 

In seine-boat station’d, distant from the land,
Now takes the owner of each net his stand,
For hours awaits, till on the greeny wave
He views afar the scole* of mack’rel lave,
With bright effulgence wide the surface stain,
And clothe with silv'ry hue the rippling plain.
————
* The scole of Mackerel is a term used by the fishermen when they perceive a quantity of these fish from the shore, rippling on the surface of the sea; on which occasion they are instantly visible to the inhabitants of these villages, who forthwith put the boat off, and shoot the seine, when they frequently draw fifteen and sixteen thousand at one haul. — H.C., esq. [pseud.], William Henry Ireland, The Fisher Boy, London, 1808.

Daniel Defoe and Sabine Baring-Gould in the West Country

Separated by some 175 years, two noted authors describe the same fishing technique with lookouts on land to spot shoals of pilchards: Daniel Defoe in Dartmouth, Devon, and Sabine Baring-Gold at Land’s End, Cornwall. There is, however, a departure from standard vocabulary. While both authors use the British standard shoal, they record West Country fishermen using two different pronunciations of school.

I observ'd some small fish to skip, and play upon the surface of the water, upon which I ask'd my friend what fish they were; immediately one of the rowers or seamen starts up in the boat, and throwing his arms abroad, as if he had been betwitch'd, cryes out as loud as he could baul, "a scool, a scool." The word was taken to the shore as hastily as it would have been on land if he had cry'd fire; and by that time we reach'd the keys, the town was all in a kind of an uproar.
… — Daniel Defoe, “Letter 3, Part 3: From Exeter to Land’s End,” A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain, divided into circuits or journies, 1724–1727.

For Defoe, shoal is the general term and scool “as they call it” in Dartmouth.

As the season advances the shool, or shoal, comes nearer the shore. ... Pilchards swim in dense hosts, so that the sea seems to be in a state of effervescence.
On the cliffs men and boys are to be seen all day lying about smoking, apparently doing nothing. But their keen eyes are on the sea. They are watching for the coming of the pilchards. It is not possible to see from the boat so as to surround a shoal; that is why a watch is maintained from the cliffs by “huers” (French huer, to shout). The moment their experienced eyes see by a change in the colour of the water that the shoal is approaching, by preconcerted signals the crew are informed as to the place where it is, and the direction it is taking. The fish playing on the surface are called skimmers. The shoal is also known by the stoiting, or jumping, of the fish.— Sabine Baring-Gould, _A Book of the West, Being an Introduction to Devon and Cornwall, v. II, Cornwall, 1900.

Baring-Golding carefully records the vocabulary of the Land’s End fishing industry, though for her as well as Defoe, the general default is shoal. Huers look out for a shool of pilchards, especially the skimmers. Stoiting fish are easier to spot. Shool is simply another English take on Du. schole.

A late 19th c. dialect dictionary suggests that the West Country is not alone in still speaking of a school of fish:

School (‘oo’ pron. as in ‘foot’ or as in ‘fool’) sb. a shoal of fish; hence, a troop of lads; an assemblage of any kind. — Arthur Benoni Evans, Sebastian Evans, Leicestershire words, phrases, and proverbs, 1881.

Though the etymological history is reversed — all the schole derivatives as general collectives came before restriction to marine animals — the note on two differing pronunciations can be trusted: they yield scull and school, even if spelled the same.

North America

In sharp contrast to the vast majority of British sources, American newspapers in the early 19th c. routinely use school as the default expression:

Those, fishermen, some of them, sometimes (though seldom) are lucky enough, after their fish are packed off to go out and fall in with a school of mackerel, and bring in a second fare. — Journal of the Assembly of the State of New York, 1824, 878.

From the Christian Mirror, Oct. 10. Harpswell, Maine, Grand Naval Fishery.—On Monday forenoon of this week a school or schoal of large fish, some of them 20 and 30 feet in length was discovered in Harpswell river, on the eastern side of Harpswell neck. — Delaware Journal_, 28 Oct. 1828.

… If they could, we would have paper representatives of all those things no doubt; would find a bank of promissory notes when we wanted a school of fish; loaves like Macbeth's dagger, all air; cattle less, substantial than Pharaoh's lean kine, and everything as scientific, unsatisfactory, and unnatural as possi­ble. — “Effects of Paper-Money in the Colonies,” Halifax Reporter (NS), 24 July 1834, in: Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register 85/8 (London, 23 Aug. 1834).

This usage attracts notice across the Atlantic:

Vol. II. page 29, we are told of a school of fish. Is it a misprint, or an Americanism? -Ed, L. G.— Review: E. Bell Stephens, The Basque Provinces, 1837; The Literary Gazette, 29 July 1837, 478ff.

The contrast between British shoal and American school is especially pointed in two texts from the same summer month of 1859:

An American finds a school of fish, an Englishman a shoal. — Russell's Magazine 5/5 (Charleston SC, Aug. 1859), 417.

EXTRAORDINARY SHOAL OF FISH.— A circumstance occurred in our bay last week which deserves, from its novel character, more than one of our usual notices. It appears that an immense shoal of fish, or as the fishermen technically say, “school of fish,” visited the bay in pursuit of their prey, which appeared to be the young fry of sprats, and on the afternoon of their arrival rather an extraordinary scene was witnessed at the Mumbles village—where the “school” was first observed. — Monmouthshire Merlin, 27 Aug. 1859.

An unspecified language community in Leicestershire in central England — something of an outlier — and fisherfolk in southeast Wales, Devon, and Cornwall are still using school. This was generally noted in an 1848 dictionay of Americanisms:

SCHOOL OF FISH. (Ang. Sax. sceol. Dutch, school.) Another pronunciation of the word shoal, and applied to a large number of fish swimming together. The expression is also provincial in England. — John Russel Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanism, 1848, 285.

And in 1876, a letter to the editor counter the claim made in an earlier number of The Spectator suggesting the school was restricted to whales, rehearses both the usage and pronunciations with which he is familiar:

I have repeatedly heard the word “school” applied by fishy people to salmon and other finny creatures that swim. I have also seen a similar use of the word in fishy literature. I have heard country fishermen, with peculiarities of local accent and vocalisation, say a “skole” of fish, or a “shool” of fish. — Matthew Browne, “The ‘Schooling’ of Fishes,” Letter to the Editor, The Spectator, No. 2485, 12 Feb. 1876.

Conclusion

A broken line of transmission suggests looking beyond Old English for an etymology of school, scull, shoal and their variants to the Dutch/Low German schole. With frequent use in Tudor and Stuart England, scull virtually disappears from general use over the 18th c. while school remains only a regional expression, especially with those most involved with the sea: sailors and fishermen. This leaves shoal alone in general use in Britain, while in the US and Canada school fulfills the same role.

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