The weird and wonderful world of words that equal numbers...
As we increasingly text instead of write and mangle the language in our rush to communicate, a book about collective nouns looks touchingly old fashioned. Martin Hesp has a read.
We've all heard of a gaggle of geese, but what about a gam of porpoises? We know about pods of whales and parliaments of owls, but not so many will have heard of a nye of pheasants or a bale of turtles. And although some will be at home with the term exaltation of larks, there probably will not be many who will know that a group of martens is called a richesse or that a gang of boars is known as a sounder.
For some reason collective nouns never cease to fascinate, which is presumably why author Steve Palin has just written a book on the subject. In A Murmuration of Starlings – The Collective Nouns of Animals and Birds, Mr Palin explains that the weird and wonderful terms have been around for more than 500 years after an English prioress listed them in a work called "The Compaynys of Beestys and Fowlys".
And it seems she probably borrowed many of the collective nouns from one William Twici who, as Edward II's huntsman, wrote the earliest book there is on the art of venery back in 1328.
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Therein lies the root of the matter – it seems that the strange world of hunting invented the need to call groupings of animals and birds specific names – because hunting is a world that requires a great deal of verbal specificity over everything.
Even in our modern relaxed times you must not describe a huntsman's jacket as being red – it must be pink, even though it isn't. Dogs cannot be called dogs, but should be hailed as hounds – and must always be counted in pairs rather than in the singular.
So it was with gangs of beasties and birds... "Many of these nouns which apply to living creatures were first recorded in the manuscripts of the Middle Ages, when social etiquette, particularly on the occasion of a hunt, demanded their correct usage," writes Mr Palin.
Exactly why the hunting fraternity was interested in describing groups of frogs and caterpillars as "armies" I have no idea – nor would I know why the tiny wren would come into the crosshairs of the hunt-lexicographers who decided that groups of the diminutive bird should be called "chimes".
Indeed, the majority of these collective nouns seem totally inexplicable – which is why Mr Palin attempts to offer a few explanations in his book.
A "loomery" of guillemots? Apparently that could come from the Latin name Uria lomvia. A "fall" of woodcock? Maybe to do with the way the bird tends to "collapse" at the end of its flight in order to land. Here's one that will interest animal activists – a "cete" of badgers may come from the old Chaucerian word for city, after the creature's knack of colonising an area by digging large underground citadels in which to live. Apparently the collective noun cete has nothing whatsoever to do with the word sett, which is used to describe the burrows.
As you can see, collective nouns tend to be just a little bit tenuous – which made me think we could do better when inventing such terms to describe modern groups of people.
A "greed of bankers" would be the most obvious example, although an "ambulance-chase of lawyers" might come a close second. Someone on Twitter suggested a "booze of journalists" might fit the bill, and the same bloke thought a "worry of farmers" would also do the trick.
My pal Leighton James House, who is a composer, came up with the following list... A "stage of actors", "shelf of writers", "hand of jugglers", "ton of weight-lifters" and "haggle of market-stallholders". Leaving me to wonder what groups of composers are called. A "chord" maybe, or perhaps a "crochet".
WMN reader Will Rayner suggested a "pomposity of politicians" – and there'd be few who'd disagree. Mr Rayner happens to be an art-dealer, which would have to be a "framing of..."
"Bash of blacksmiths", "trammel of trawlermen", "flash of photographers", "bleat of shepherds", "rope of tug-boat captains"... You could go on an on dreaming up obvious collective nouns for people with different jobs. Or you could borrow old ones for new professions like "skein of air-traffic controllers", "exaltation of artists-in-residence", "richesse of hedge-fund managers" or "unkindness of debt-management consultants".
Talking of unkindness, you can always use collective nouns to have a dig at various folk, as in a: "light-meter of cricket umpires", "vacancy of daytime TV presenters", "garnishing of estate agents" or "snare of traffic wardens". In a bid to appear fair-minded I'd go for a "cynicism of newspaper hacks" or an "irritable bowel of columnists".
But really I prefer all those mysterious old fashioned collective nouns like "sleuth of bears", "flock of camels", "murder of crows", "clowder of cats", "wisp of snipe" and "mutation of thrushes"...
Why a mutation I wonder?
The best thing about group names is that they offer more questions than answers...
A Murmuration of Starlings by Steve Palin is published by Merlin Unwin Books at £7.99.