Murder of crows; flamboyance of flamingos

Published 7:26 pm Friday, November 1, 2019

Last week, I delved into looking at the interesting histories behind some common words. This week, in keeping with the language theme, I’m going to focus on a (personally) fascinating quirk of the English language: collective nouns.

You might be unfamiliar with the technical term, but we use collective nouns every day. They’re words that are used to represent a group of anything. For example, when several people get together, they’re called a “crowd” or an “audience” or a “mob” depending on the situation. When you have several dancers that perform together, we call it a “troupe.” For people playing sports together, they’re a “team.” All these are common collective nouns.

It’s not just groups of people that get the collective treatment either. Other common collective nouns include a “bouquet” of flowers, a “fleet” of ships, and a “range” of mountains. We use these words in normal conversation without giving any of it a second thought.

But, don’t worry. I’m not here to give you a basic grammar lesson. I’d rather talk about the truly fun thing about collective nouns, which is when they’re used for groups of animals. We all know the common ones like a “pack of wolves” or a “herd of deer” or a “flock of geese.” But others are quite absurd.

According to my research on the topic, many of the collective nouns for animals are archaic hunting terms (or “terms of venery” if you want to sound fancy) that stretch all the way back to the Middle Ages. It’s not surprising, however, that some of these terms were made up to be humorous and not really meant to be used in regular conversation. Over the years, the list of animal-related collective nouns has only grown larger and more ridiculous to the point where I’m sure half of these I’m about to share with you are made up (despite being listed on several different websites I checked).

Here are the most ridiculous collective nouns I’ve read recently:

If you look out in your field and see numerous black birds eating your crops, that’s a murder of crows. Very ominious, very concerning. It makes me want to avoid crows completely if possible. Conversely, a convocation of eagles makes me feel like I should be listening to them give a speech or something. Similarly, a parliament of owls perhaps might be better at running a government than we humans currently are. But instead, maybe we should all be more like a flamboyance of flamingos. That sounds like a party!

In the water, I’d definitely like to avoid a smack of jellyfish and a battery of barracudas. (Who wouldn’t??) On the other hand, a rally of octopuses sounds like a good time. Whatever you do though, try to avoid sleeping on a bed of eels!

You might not want to tell your secrets to a conspiracy of lemurs or an embarrassment of pandas. All sound very untrustworthy. I would also worry about encountering an army of frogs and a gang of elk in the wild. But maybe I could always get help and advice from a coalition of cheetahs or a wisdom of wombats. If they could talk!

Keep in mind that language is always flexible. No one is going to stop you if you just use words like “herd” and “pack” and “group” to describe any of these animals, and not many people will notice if you mix and match the collective nouns to the wrong animal group. Life isn’t English class, so you’re not going to be docked any points off your grade for not using the proper collective nouns. But if you want to sound fancy, then by all means try these words out next time you’re talking about animals with someone.

Or just make up your own!

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.