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Fun with collective nouns

Posted on Wednesday, August 30, 2017 at 12:13 pm

By Nick Thomas

Naming collective nouns is a time-honored alliteration of bards dating back to medieval days.

Their linguistic talents have bequeathed to the English language some intriguing terms, especially for groups of animals.

While many are well-known and rather bland (pack of dogs, herd of elephants, swarm of bees), others are delightful with their pluralistic logic: waddle of penguins, crash of rhinoceroses, cloud of bats, army of ants, ambush of tigers and cackle of hyenas.

Though archaic, and somewhat challenging to work into modern conversation, several display poetic grammatical beauty and are just plain fun to annunciate if only to elicit a listener’s curious smile: a muster of peacocks, a parliament of owls, and an exaltation of larks (the latter also being the title of James Lipton’s excellent 1968 book on the subject).

Then there are the real oddballs, such as a murder of crows, although this term is largely ignored by ornithologists and bird lovers today. According to the American Society of Crows and Ravens’ web site, the term’s origin has a tenuous link to avian fact: “Occasionally crows will kill a dying crow [that] doesn’t belong in their territory or, much more commonly, feed on carcasses of dead crows.”

Terms have even been ascribed to groups of imaginary creatures, such as a coven of witches and a blessing of unicorns, although an impalement of unicorns might be more to the point.  And for Dracula devotee’s, a kiss of vampires has been suggested for a group of the resurrected blood suckers.

In addition to animals, there are many familiar terms for groups of objects: fleet of ships, flight of stairs, belt of asteroids, and chain of islands.

 

Here, however, restraint should be exercised least one succumb to the irrepressible creative urge which collective nouning inevitably arouses. Indeed, many practitioners so inflicted have been inspired to create delightful terms such as a rash of dermatologists, a stack of librarians, a host of parasites, and a range of ovens.

And from there, it is a quick descent into the dark world of grammatical absurdity: a fraid of ghosts, a nun of your business, and a charlotte of web sites.

So it didn’t take much convincing to draw me into the realm of silly collective nouns with the following contributions:

A trunk of elephants; a Raid of roaches; a scream of kidney stones; an annoyance of reality shows; a waffle of politicians; a condemnation of Elvis impersonators; a nag of spouses; a void of urologists; a division of mathematicians; a mess of cooks; an excess of administrators; a slew of assassins; and a body of funeral directors.

And should you find yourself at a naval dock greeting family or friends returning from a mission, expect to be surrounded by “a hoy of sailors.”

 

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 650 magazines and newspapers.