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All Together Now

August 7, 2011

The English language has a rich and varied history – derived as it was from a mix of other, much older languages – and has often been criticized by those who have had to learn it (as a second or third language) as being extremely difficult to grasp.  Many ‘native English speakers’ have also expressed frustration at times in trying to comprehend its phonology (the patterning of sounds and pronunciation of words – including vowels, consonants, tone, intonation), grammar (rules regarding the structure and syntax of words and sentences), and ever-changing vocabulary (the Oxford English Dictionary clearly states, “the circle of the English language has a well-defined centre but no discernible circumference” – in other words, we have no idea how many words there are in the English language because it is changing all the time).

Pride of LionsOne of the quirks of the English language that has always fascinated me is the number of ‘collective nouns’ used to describe different ‘groups’ (of people, animals, inanimate objects, concepts, ‘things’ in general). There are, of course, the typical synonyms (often dependant on the circumstance or the object[s] being described): collection (or collective), cluster, set, assembly (or assemblage), grouping, faction, crowd, set, unit, troupe (or troop), band, congregation, consortium, class, school, caste, category, throng, gathering … but there are others that are specific to only one unique entity.  You are probably most familiar with this concept as it relates to animals – for example, the use of the collective noun ‘pride’ is applied only to lions, not to any other type of animal.  Known as ‘terms of venery’, assigning distinct collective nouns for certain animals can be traced back to Medieval [15th century] England, where they were actually taught as part of a nobleman’s education, and used during a hunt to distinguish ‘gentlemen’ from the lower classes. 

What I find interesting about these collective nouns is that most of them reflect something of the personality, behaviour, or character traits of the animals they reference. Here are some of my favourites (say each phrase several times and let your mind ‘fill in the blanks’ with imagery): 

  • Flamboyance of Flamingosa flamboyance of flamingos
  • a gaggle of geese
  • a busyness of ferrets
  • a shrewdness of apes
  • a murder of crows
  • a bed of snakes
  • a troop of kangaroos
  • a cloud of grasshoppers
  • Lounge of Lizardsa lounge of lizards*
  • a convocation of eagles
  • a crash of rhinoceroses
  • an exaltation of larks
  • a scourge of mosquitoes

*(photo from:  http://rtseablog.blogspot.com/2010/05/losing-lizards-study-indicates-climate.html)

Since the fifteenth century, new terms of venery have been introduced to our lexicon to describe just about every type of animal species (for a fairly complete list, visit “Fun With Words”).  Oftentimes, people come up with their own alternatives – here are a few I created that I think better describe some of my favourite animals:

  • Delight of Donkeysa delight of donkeys
  • a cuddle of cats
  • a protection of dogs
  • a quiver of hummingbirds
  • a stripe of zebras
  • an elevation of giraffes
  • a grace of hawks

Of course, writers like to play with words and have fashioned any number of collective nouns to describe different groups of people.  Here’s a list I put together over the weekend (feel free to send me your own – through Comments, below):

  • Complaint of Old Mena complaint of old men
  • a giggle of schoolgirls
  • a gossip of housewives
  • a worry of mothers
  • a curiosity of toddlers
  • a tussle of young boys
  • an ignorance of bigots
  • a wrench of mechanics
  • a throw of baseball players
  • a story of writers
  • Rumble of Motorcyclistsa rumble of motorcyclists
  • a diagnosis of doctors
  • a spine of chiropractors
  • a tickle of podiatrists
  • an analysis of psychiatrists
  • a nurture of nurses
  • a storm of meteorologists
  • a bluster of politicians
  • a judgment of lawyers
  • an enlightenment of teachers
  • a nuisance of neighbours
  • a gracefulness of people who’ve reached … the other side of 55

 Gracefulness

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10 Comments
  1. August 26, 2011 12:35 pm

    Brilliant!!!! I just love this post. I adore the Englsh language and especially collective nouns. I really enjoyed your contributions and my brain has now gone into overdrive to think of more 🙂 I plan to take a TEFL course in the near future as I would love to teach English, so these will be of interest for the future. One of my favourite pastimes is creating my blog posts using as many descriptive words as possible without going overboard. I just love this wonderful language of ours. Thanks for a fun post.
    Cindy @notjustagranny

    • August 26, 2011 6:21 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it and that it got your juices flowing!

      Margo

  2. August 10, 2011 10:48 am

    “A rumble of motorcyclists” is great – very evocative! Someone who had been to a concert asked me recently for a collective term for bassoons; I suggested “a paroomp of bassoons”. The line about English having “no discernible circumference” is by James A. H. Murray. The passage it appears in is excellent, and remains true and relevant today.

    • August 10, 2011 12:24 pm

      If the English language is, indeed, a ‘universal’ language, then it only makes sense that it is infinitely changing (although not always for the better, I’m afraid!).

      Margo

  3. August 9, 2011 2:20 pm

    What I like the most about the English language is that it is always changing. That willingness to adapt means it is well suited to being a universal language in all the situations where it is important that people from all over the world be able to communicate with one another without interpreters.

    • August 9, 2011 9:45 pm

      I agree – and isn’t it fascinating that it has become so pervasive and the world’s third most spoken language (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish) in such a short time (it’s much younger than so many other langauges)? I do despair, sometimes, however, that so many of the ‘original’ languages of the world have disappeared (along with other elements of those cultures). We shouldn’t have to lose one thing to gain another.

      Margo

  4. Allen Garvin permalink
    August 9, 2011 12:10 am

    I like the “cuddle of cats”. Except my four cats never, ever cuddle together. Two of them are litter mates, Mr Squeak and Eenie, and they’re the worst about hissing at the other whenever they get too near. I know the “proper” collective noun for cats is “clowder”, but I have no idea what a clowder is. Based on my cats’ behavior, I imagine it as a group of critters all studiously ignoring each other, while keeping close track of each other so as to react with indignation when another member of the clowder violates the unspoken rules of the gathering. The only other clowder I can think of, based on that, would be teenaged siblings.

    In any case, of all these, “an ignorance of bigots” is now my officially favorite collective noun. I’m going to vow to use it as often as possible.

    • August 9, 2011 9:46 am

      I hadn’t heard the word ‘clowder’ for cats … but there are several others (one is ‘nuisance’, which might fit your situtation – certainly mine [I’m down to one from three] have been at times both a nuisance and a cuddle). I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Margo

  5. Cathy Hendrix permalink
    August 7, 2011 9:35 pm

    I loved this one! I’m with you about the names of the group of animals, they certainly bring pictures to mind and evoke the possible personalities of those animals. I especially like “a murder of crows”. How creepy is that?? We could add as well ‘a school of fish’ which is rather whimsical, I think. I enjoyed your personal list as well. How about ‘a carol of singers’ or ‘a scalpel of surgeons’??? Or ‘a molar of dentists’!! This is fun!

    • August 8, 2011 9:53 am

      There’s probably no end to what we can create! Thanks for adding to the list.

      Margo

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