The Wit Of Words: Inventing Collective Nouns

Leanne's Butterflies

One of the games we play at the dinner table is What’s The Collective Noun For (throw out a noun). It’s not that snazzy a title, but we parents-on-the premises made it up on the fly to interest our kid in the more entertaining and provocative aspects of grammar. The game was a hit –for all of us. We had no idea such diversity existed in the English language to describe the collective identity of a group of things. Over the years, adding, but not using, collective nouns, to my somewhat private vocabulary has become a hobby. What I mean by private is just that: a vocabulary I cherish and keep to myself. While I have an ongoing love affair with the English language, for the most part, the conventions we utilize for day-to-day communication do not provide much room for whimsical or archaic words. The eccentric does not lend itself to clarity; it’s fair trade in the business of words.

Our use in Standard English of collective nouns derives from terms of venery in the Late Middle Ages, a vibrant and highly specialized hunting vocabulary developed in England and France.  The Book of St. Albans (1486), its later edition, The Gentleman’s Academie, or the Booke of S. Albans (1595), edited by Gervase Markham, and Joseph Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of England (1801) codified our most familiar collective nouns and our most fanciful ones: a pack of hounds, a swarm of bees, a pride of lions to a puddling of mallard, a mischief of mice, an ostentation of peacocks, an unkindness of ravens and a lamentation of swans (a lamentation of swans! Proust weeps and T.S. Eliot scoops up the tears).

St. Albans’ collective is a playful, descriptive attribute of the group. Numbering well over 100, our use of these collective nouns has dwindled in the vernacular. Few of us go around mentioning our glaring of cats. However, there exists a clamor of  places and publications on the Internet cataloguing, exploring and inventing new collective designations. By far, my favorite is All Sorts: A Linguistic Experiment. At All Sorts, contributors invent our language.

All Sorts inventories new collectives via Twitter with the hashtag, #collectivenouns. The site parses the format and maintains an index of submissions with attributions. Retweets count as a vote. If you wish to submit a collective noun, this is the format: a bunch of somethings #collectivenouns  (Please see the All Sorts site for further rules, which are reasonable and make perfect sense).

Outstripping the French and the English of 500 years ago with the help of digital distribution and communication, All Sorts reveals that the interest and resurgence in this aspect of the English language stretches wit to reach far beyond mere taxonomy and displays how dynamic, elastic and playful our language remains: a gnag of dyslexics, a winter of discount tents, a privatisation of doctors, a lie of politicians, a fraid of spiders, a whorde of prostitutes, a clot of vampires, a clique of photographers, an orchard of macs, a hanging of bats.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite collective nouns and some new ones. Consider submitting them to All Sorts.

April

P.S. Find a list of supernatural collective nouns here. A well-documented list of collective nouns exists on Wikipedia here. Find an astonishing but undocumented list here.

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2 thoughts on “The Wit Of Words: Inventing Collective Nouns

  1. Now my mind is searching through the few collective nouns I remember and actually use. I am tickled thinking of how there are distinctly Southern expressions that fit into this category. I am sure you know the ones I’m thinking of. I liked the ones you quoted about a glaring of cats. I don’t know that I’ve heard that before.

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  2. One thing I forgot to mention was how some cliches have become collective nouns, like a tissue of lies. There are so many I’d never heard and relearn them all the time. They are fun and quirky. Thanks, Leanne!

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