Collective nouns do what they say on the tin — they’re the names for collection of things, like a herd of cows, a hive of bees or a pride of lions. These are easy ones that a five-year old would know. Here are more everyday examples: a fleet of ships, a panel of experts, a pod of dolphins, a board of directors, a gaggle of geese, or a host of angels.
But then things get more complicated. A gaggle of geese refers to geese on the ground. Geese in flight? Well, that’s a skein. We all know bananas come in a bunch, well actually not, it’s hand or a comb. And ants come in armies, but so do caterpillars, herrings and frogs.
There are others that share a bed. We’re aware of a bevy of ladies, but what about a bevy of deer, otters or swans? And a company of actors? They’re in good company, with moles, soldiers and parrots. Or a congregation of worshippers? They’re joined by alligators and crocodiles… but that just sounds like the plot of a horror movie.
Whilst we’re on dodgy characters, a mob of thieves have meerkats, emus and kangaroos in their gang. An ambush of tigers seems appropriate, but an ambush of widows? A rather magical one is a charm of goldfinches, along with hummingbirds and fairies.
So where do these odd names come from? Some collective nouns for birds have been around since the 1400s. It’s thought they came from texts on hunting, and over time they evolved to become funny or evocative. Some bird names are celebratory — a crown of kingfishers, or an exaltation of larks. Others convey sound, like a murmuration of starlings. There are also names that evoke character such as a conspiracy of ravens, a parliament of owls or an ostentation of peacocks.
Often these are steeped in history. Take a murder of crows for example — thought to be based on their dark feathers and jet-black eyes, since medieval folk thought they were envoys from the devil or witches in disguise. Crows were also believed to have the power of prophecy, predicting who was going to die. Beware a crow landing on your roof in the 1400s — someone in your house would expire.
But collective nouns are still really popular today — a quick glance at the online shelves brings up 175 different books on the topic, such as 101 collective nouns for 4–8 year olds, or The Compendium of Collective Nouns: From an Armory of Aardvarks to a Zeal of Zebras.
Thinking about aardvarks and zebras, here are some more charming ones for animals: a kindle of kittens, a piddle of puppies, a loveliness of ladybirds and a blessing of unicorns. Other evocative names include a glaring of cats, a shiver of sharks, a bloat of hippopotamuses, a scorn of camels and an obstinacy of buffaloes.
There are also more here for people: A ponder of philosophers, a sprocket of engineers, a sarcasm of stagehands, a shuffle of bureaucrats, a blush of boys, and a sneer of butlers. But what is the collective noun for those searching for meaning? A quest perhaps? Or folk who are lost in their careers — a meandering? Or people who want to change but don’t know where to start? Maybe a procrastination?
If you still haven’t had your fill of collective nouns, there are hundreds more here. Do we need a name for people who collect collective nouns? A hoarder perhaps?
This week I’m giving my interviewees a break — they’ve been pretty busy for 57 weeks so they deserve a rest. Tune in next week for Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change, find out more here.
Photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan