If English is an endangered species in the hands of newspaper columinists, it usually becomes a cadaver in the hands of government public relations types.
But there is an exception to every rule, and sure enough, news of a big exception flew into the mailbox the other day, courtesy of Frank H. Forrester.
Out in Reston, at the flackery factory of the U.S. Geological Survey, where Forrester works, the troops were looking for a word one day last week to describe a collection of press clippings they had amassed.
There was nothing in anyone's memory, or anyone's dictionary.
"Sheaf" wasn't quite right. Neither was "stack."
"File" would have been too mundane and too ambiguous. "Assemblage" and "gallery" were too precious.
But the discussion got Forrester and friends wondering about words that mean "collection" when applied to other animals, vegetables, minerals and categories.
"Gaggle" of geese, "school" of bluefish, "flock" of sparrows -- those were on the tips of every tongue.
But since the geology business tends to be slow in August, the flacks had the time -- and glory be, the imagination -- to plow further.
Out came fish and wildlife guidebooks and natural sciences textbooks that only a graduate student could love. Out of them came a storehouse of the clever, the obscure, the surprising -- and the just-plain funny.
In the animal kingdom, our amateur philologists found entries that many, but not all, would recognize:
"Band" of gorillas.
"Bed" of clams.
"Bevy" of quail.
"Litter" of pigs.
"But some others in the books were new to use," Forrester writes. "'Charm' of goldfinches, 'cloud' of gnats (how apt), 'cry' of hounds, 'knot' of toads."
Not to mention my four favorites: "Leap" of leopards, "murder' of crows, "muster" of peacocks and "skulk" of foxes.
In the earth sciences, Forrester's Forces found a "swarm" of earthquakes, a "family" of faults, a "suite" of rocks and a "chain" of lakes.
They also found a "line" of thunderstorms. But by now Forrester was getting into the mood.
He suggested that they dream up a new word for a collection of thunderstorms: a "crack" of them. Meanwhile the "chain" of lakes ought to become a "shimmer" of them, Forrester suggested.
In overdrive now, tongue firmly in cheek, Forrester made these nominations as well:
A "vane" of meteorologists.
A "crag" of geologists.
A "scribe" of writers.
And (what else) a "flack" of press agents.
Well, just to show you that newspaper wretches haven't traded their imaginations to flacks for a few high draft choices, I have put together my own list of "collections."
Dictionary editors are hereby warned to flee in horror -- to take notes.
A "black bag" of doctors.
A "hook" of prostitutes.
A "battery" of prizefighters
A "policy" of insurance salesmen.
More? You say you want more?
A "crunch" of pretzel manufacturers.
A "stable" of tranquilizer distributors.
A "belch" of Polish sausage.
A "robe" of judges.
Not enough, you say?
Sorry, I must have left out a "lemon" of used cars.
A "flatfoot" of cops.
A "moral" of philosophers.
A "dunk" of basketball players.
And how can I forget the "creep" of men who hang out in singles' bars?
Or the "dish" of women they try to pick up there?
In any case, as Forrester urges, "Down with bunch"
But the "flack" of geo-flacks out in Reston still has a problem, it seems.
They did just fine by gorillas and squalls. But they never came up with an answer to their original "collection of press clippings" question.
The best the group could come up with was "flutter," Forrester reports. "'Wampum' ran a good second," he adds.
Humbly, it says here:
Clips can only come in "snippets."
If you are confused by bank service charges, you will feel right at home by reading a recently issued Security National Bank brochure that purports to explain the bank's personal checking account procedure.
On the cover, the brochure crows: "FREE Personal Checking."
Inside, the first words across the top of the first column are: "It's free."
A little lower down, the text reads: "At Security National Bank all personal checking is free."
Then, in explaning how to order personalized checks, the brochure reads: "The cost is nominal."