Fun with words: Inventing cool collective nouns

Has anyone in all seriousness ever said, “Oh no, I’m right in the middle of a smack of jellyfish!”? Welcome to the strange world of collective nouns.

Words that refer to groups of individuals are collective nouns, and English speakers love them. My local library system has around 30 books that will tell you that a bunch of penguins is a “huddle” or a “tuxedo” and that lots of giraffes make up a “tower.” It is great fun to guess at the connection between the animal and its group designator, to see how creative the naming can get. But are these terms anything more than cool coinages? Has anyone in all seriousness ever said, “Look at that massive unkindness of ravens in that tree!” or “Oh no, I’m right in the middle of a smack of jellyfish!”? Do people, in other words, actually use them?

These terms, also called company names, have been collected and enjoyed for more than 500 years. Three of the very first books printed in England contained long lists of them: “a brace of hounds,” “a charm of goldfinches,” a “truelove of turtledoves.” Many originated as “terms of venery,” which is a fancy word for “hunting.” This gives us an idea of what these words were originally meant to do – they served as shibboleths to separate and rank people. One circa 1470 collection described itself as containing words a “young gentleman” should know, so that he “fail not in his proper terms.” If you were a newly wealthy merchant who wanted your son to hobnob with noblemen, he had to know that one said “a herd of harts” (mature male deer) but “a bevy of roe” (a species of small deer). 

Even in the 15th century, though, collective nouns could also be just plain fun. Writers vied to come up with the best names, not just for groups of animals, but for people and professions, too. Early lists feature “an eloquence of lawyers,” “a burden of mules,” “an impatience of wives,” “a leap of leopards.” You could have both a “melody of harpers” and a “poverty” of them, depending on your attitude to the instrument. There could be a “superfluity of nuns” or a “holiness,” depending on your attitude to the Protestant Reformation. These are simply creative and funny, not terms that Joe Merchant would have had to master in order to hunt with the aristocracy. 

Some of these have indeed passed into common use. We regularly say “a swarm of bees,” “a pride of lions,” and “a flock of sheep,” for example. Others turn up in a few scattered sources over the centuries: “a murmuration of starlings,” “a murder of crows.” Most, however, are not actually used in everyday communication and are found only in these lists. They are evidence of an old game that we still delight in. All over the internet people are wondering: Is it a “tangle of octopuses” or an “embrace”? A “squirm of worms” or a “wriggle”?  

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some of my favorites.

Click here to read Part 2 in this series.

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