One question that surfaced on HH a while back that we never properly addressed was why a group of jugglers is called a neverthriving. And who, moreover, gets to decide what these collective nouns actually are?
Because so many of these bizarre group terms are so—well, bizarre, it’s easy to presume that they’re all fairly arbitrary modern inventions, coined perhaps in the last few decades by someone trying to make the language more interesting than it already is. Admittedly, some of them are. But an awful lot of them really aren’t—and neverthriving is amongst them.
In fact, neverthriving has such a lengthy history in the language that it’s even found its way onto the hallowed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has unearthed its earliest reference to a “neuerthryuyng of iogulers” in a Middle English glossary dating from the mid 1400s, and from there the word found its way into an insanely popular collection of contemporary culture and Middle English vocabulary called The Book of St Albans.
Published in 1486, The Book of St Albans was a three-part guide to the terms and techniques of hunting, hawking and heraldry. And amongst its pages was a fairly comprehensive list of collective nouns, or “terms of venery”, that covered everything from the collective terms for badgers (a cete) to lawyers (an eloquence), and from jugglers (a neverthriving) to nuns (a superfluity) and cobblers (a drunkship).
The book’s immense popularity in the Middle Ages helped to establish these otherwise somewhat flippant and throwaway terms in the English vocabulary. Although apparently coined somewhat randomly (and often satirically), a few nevertheless caught on: we still talk of a pride of lions, and even a murder of crows flies by every now and then.
Neverthriving, and most of the others, however, remained firmly positioned on the outskirts of the language and were seldom used outside of glossaries and other lists of collective nouns. As the OED puts it, neverthriving is “rare” as a word for a group of jugglers, and moreover is judged to be “one of many alleged group terms found in late Middle English glossarial sources, but not otherwise substantiated”. If you ever need a collective noun for jugglers, though, the word is there waiting to be used.
One last question, though: why a neverthriving?
Well, of all the ways to make money in the Middle English period, we can presume that whoever invented this term considered being a juggler to be probably not the most financially secure. Publishing lists of collective nouns was clearly a much more profitable pursuit.