Coming, Going, and Out in Droves

What is a drove, and why do people come out in them? If you didn’t know any better, the way the word is used might lead you to think it’s a kind of conveyance (“They came out in droves. Have you ever tried to park a drove, let alone 15,000 of them? It was a nightmare!“). Or a fashion statement (“They came out in droves but their neighbors went with a more casual look: shorts and polo shirts.“).

This one was on my mind after hearing it used in a questionable sense by a non-English speaker in a radio interview. The dicey non-idiomatic use, coupled with the accent, caught my attention and after hearing several others use it over the next few days I thought it worth a closer look. Sometimes I learn something on these mini research efforts—maybe sometimes readers do, too.

First off, let’s distinguish the two main uses of drove: we’re not talking about the past tense of the verb to drive: “She drove from Boston to Altoona without stopping.” For this discussion, verbs are off the table.

We’re looking at drove as used in the phrase in droves, which colloquially means a flock or a herd or a crowd: some sort of loosely organized mass movement, primarily of living things, generally concentrating in one area. It’s most often used in contemporary
contexts to describe consumers rushing out to buy something, voters turning out to the polls, or protesters or fans of some sort showing up at an event. But you’ll encounter it applied to many crowd or mass gathering situations.

And that’s about it. You’re rarely going to see drove or droves—as a collective noun—show up in any other sense in modern English. It appears to be something of an idiomatic fossil, a word that might have once been used commonly but has settled into a single niche in one last expression.

Drove is a very old word, with it’s origin purely in Old English. There’s no direct connection to any of the usual suspects that English has borrowed so many words from (Latin, Greek, medieval European languages). Some form of the word was probably in use in England by no later than the 7th century (although there are few written sources to support this). Drove as a noun meaning herd or flock can be found in the written record from at least the early 12th century, when English was barely recognizable as the language we use today. By the middle of the 16th century, most modern speakers would have been able to “get it” as far as both the use and spelling were concerned.

In droves turns out to be a fairly old construction. It wasn’t always applied to a literal flock or herd, even early on. By the late 16th century the figurative sense was in use, but not necessarily common: a 1596 citation mentions creatures returning to their country in droves (the author was writing about salmon in Scottish rivers). He tags the description with “as it war” (“as it were”) because he’s using it in a figurative sense: he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable using droves (“draues“) to describe fish, or in using “their awne cuntrey” (“their own country”) to describe their native river. (This history courtesy of the OED; the closer reading of “The historie of Scotland” courtesy of The Internet Archive.)

How common has this phrase, in droves, been? Surprisingly, it seems to have become popular only in recent history. According to our good friend Google Ngrams, the phrase is nearly unheard of in the written record until near the end of the 17th century. Early references (before about 1750) lean toward actual flocks or herds (of animals) but include people. For the next couple of hundred years, use of the phrase is not particularly frequent, and continues to be split between animals and humans. (One 1793 source disparagingly references Gypsy pickpockets who “in droves” swarm through crowds, relieving others of their possessions.)

Something happened around the middle of the 20th century to give its use a bump. I haven’t been able to put my finger on what—which is typical of English trends—but it caused a usage peak in the 1940s not seen before (and not matched until the mid 1990s; that pushed on to a new peak in 2003). The current use trend is uncertain (Ngrams fails after 2008), but my assumption is that use is still fairly steady, especially since it’s normal to run into the phrase on at least a weekly basis.

In droves, by the way, doesn’t seem to have one sense you might assume it would because of its connection to drovers (herders, or those who drive flocks). There’s very little (if any) sense of being driven when something is mentioned in droves today.

While most use is in the form of “they came out in droves” a few similar forms are also used, most frequently the slightly truncated reference to something “coming in droves” or “going in droves” (without the “out“). Both are far behind the full “out in droves” form: combined, they’re used less than half as often. “Out in their droves” is a much less frequent variant (it’s somewhat more common in British English; overall you’ll run into it about once for every 40 uses of the other phrasings). Citations suggest adding “their” is both newer and leans to the pretentious.

Staying away in droves (or a similar twist) gets used occasionally, mostly for the humor. The meaning (one hopes) is obvious and the joke clear, even though the use is illogical: a drove being a herd or crowd, it doesn’t strictly make sense when used this way. A crowd can’t stay away in a drove, because then it wouldn’t be a crowd, unless that crowd goes to another specific location instead. Do you follow? A crowd isn’t a crowd if it’s a bunch of individuals doing their own things in their own places. You can move (or show up) in droves, as a crowd, but you can’t stay away as a drove because a ‘negative drove‘ isn’t a thing. That’s part of the joke.

I hope the above makes some sense. It’s not the kind of post that will bring readers out to this blog in droves, but I’ll take what I can get.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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