Yesterday, Subramanian Swamy tweeted, delightedly, “A group of baboons acc to dictionaries is called Congress. How far sighted!”
His followers loved it, reteweeting with alacrity and enthusiasm.
I’ve been a sucker, from my school days, for learning about the collective nouns of birds and animals. For example, I learned that a group of ants is called an ‘army’, and every time I see ants in a group, I immediately start seeing them as soldiers, some as officers, some as privates, and so on. I particularly loved a ‘murder’ of crows and an ‘exaltation’ of larks.
I thought I knew most of them; so why hadn’t I heard of the ‘congress’ of baboons?
I did a check on the usage.
The fact-checking organization Politifact Rhode Islandhas determined that an aggregate of baboons is not called a "congress," as claimed in a chain e-mail. After consulting dictionary.com, Merriam Webster, and Oxford, which shed no light, and Urban Dictionary, which was apparently updated using the chain e-mail as a source, the reporter sensibly sought the advice of both primate specialists and lexicographers, consulting DSNA President Orin Hargraves. According to the article, the proper term is "troop.", says Dictionary Society of North America.
So I travelled from Dictionary Society to Politifact. Here’s what they have to say on the issue.
We at PolitiFact have learned from experience to be skeptical of anything we see in the contagion of e-mails we receive. But we wondered, since we're always skeptical of our own skepticism, could this just be a joke, or could this little tidbit be true? First stop: Dictionary.com. None of the definitions for congress referred to baboons, apes, monkeys or primates. A "congress" can be a meeting or session of any group, but the e-mail makes it clear that this is a specific term for a gathering of baboons. Merriam-Webster.com also produced negative results. So did the online version of the Oxford Dictionary and the 2,059-page Random House Unabridged Dictionary from 1973 in our newsroom. Two places where we did find it were sources in which virtually anybody could insert a definition on a whim: Wikipedia and UrbanDictionary.com. (In the Urban Dictionary, someone added the definition on Sept. 3, 2011, in response to the e-mail.) So we turned to Orin Hargraves, a freelance lexicographer and president of the Dictionary Society of North America.
Hargraves could find no evidence that congress is the correct term. “Apparently someone just made it up," he said. "It has the ring of truthiness and so people like it…
Shirley Strum is at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project in Nairobi,Kenya. Larissa Swedell is atQueensCollege of the City University of New York and studies the primates inEthiopia andSouth Africa. Both said the correct term for a group of baboons is a "troop." "I have never heard the term congress used for a group of baboons!" Swedell said in an e-mail.
Swamy, while he has chortled along with his loyal followers on Twitter on the farsightedness of those who ‘coined’ the collective noun, has refused to acknowledge this writer’s tweets on his own misleading tweet.
Many of us may be buffoons, but some of us are sceptical buffoons who fact-check.