The curious case of the gaggle of geese

Language is a special thing to me. I’m a sign language professional and an interpreter, an avid book worm, and a writer (sort of). I love language, not only it’s nitty-gritty syntactical side, but also it’s ridiculous idiosyncratic irregularities. I love historical linguistics, I love cultural linguistics. I love phonology, morphology, and syntactical studies. And of all the quirks present in any given language, I have a special relationship with terms of venery, also known as collective nouns or nouns of assembly.

Terms of venery are entertaining quirks of language, historical hold-overs from a time when having collective nouns for groups of animals was a useful linguistic tool for hunters. In the 7th grade, my English teacher made a short lesson of collective nouns, asking for students to come up and write as many as possible on the board. There were your typical responses: a school of fish, a herd of cows, a pod of whales. When I gave my contribution — a gaggle of geese — my teacher stopped me. “That’s not a real word,” she said. “Really?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure it is.” But she had never heard of it, so it was wiped off the board. Years later, though, I ran into that same teacher who told me about a friend who had used the phrase “gaggle of geese” — thus, I was vindicated.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed learning more about collective nouns. I mean, who wouldn’t? With their often alliterative quality and poetic cadence, nouns of assembly are vivid literary tools to help the reader envision the collective which is being described. I mean, “an ostentation of peacocks” — can’t you just see that in your mind? It’s perfect!

In celebration of terms of venery, I’ve collected a few of my favorites to share with you. I urge you to take advantage of them at every available opportunity. After all, variety is the spice of life. Why say, “a bunch of spiders” when the phrase “a cluster of spiders” is available to you! (Sadly, despite what the Internet may have told you, “a nightmare of spiders” or “a nightmare of crabs” is not, strictly speaking, an accepted term of venery. Though by all accounts it should be.)

Yes, I think it's fair to say that any number of arthopods in a group is a fucking nightmare.
Yes, I think it’s fair to say that any number of arthopods coming together in a group is a fucking nightmare.

Collective Nouns to use for Winning at Life:

A watch of nightingales

A smack of jellyfish

A herd of sea urchins (This seems somewhat misrepresentative to me, given the relative immobility of sea urchins, but whatever.)

A bloat of hippos

An unkindness of ravens

A stud of mares (Is this something of a contradiction in terms?)

A labor of moles

A float of crocodiles

A hover of trout

A shrewdness of apes

Seriously, just look at this fella. He is absolutely the embodiment of shrewdness.

A destruction of (wild) cats

A skulk of foxes

An intrusion of cockroaches (Yes, I think it’s fair to say that five or more cockroaches are intrusive.)

A boil of hawks

A kindle of kittens (This one is just fun to say. I might go to the Humane Society and adopt a few kittens, just so I can tell someone, “I have a kindle of kittens at home.”)

A murder of crows (A murder. Of hyper-intelligent black terror birds. Coming your way!)

A parliament of owls

A wisdom of wombats (Seems like this one and the one above ought to be switched, yeah? Wombats don’t strike me as being especially “wise”. But I can definitely see wombats in government.)

A business of ferrets (The first time this term was seen, in The Boke of Saint Albans, a treatise on hunting terms and other interests of gentlemen, it was a “busyness” of ferrets, as reference to their frenetic style of hunting prey. Over time, the form was corrupted to a “business” of ferrets.)

A cackle of hyenas

A mob of emus

A cluster of cats

A troubling of goldfish (Troubling, why? I’m not sure.)

A barrel of monkeys (No, really!)

A bank of swans (Swans, actually, have the longest list of collectives associated with them, including “bevy”, “drift”, “eyrar”, “flight”, “game”, “herd”, “sownder”, “team”, “wedge”, “whiting”, and my personal favorite — “lamentation”.

It’s also fun to note that collective nouns were also expanded to humorously encompass groups of humans and professions, such as “a doctrine of doctors”, “a sentence of judges”, and delightfully: “a press gaggle” to refer to an informal meeting of the press with the White House press secretary.

I think "swarm" would also be appropriate.
I think “swarm” would also be appropriate.

A perfect storm

Actor Robin Williams took his own life today. By all accounts an extremely funny, extremely intelligent person, he lost a battle with depression. I’m probably more upset by this than I have any right to be — Mr. Williams being an actor and a public figure whom I enjoyed does not mean that he belongs to me in any sense. It doesn’t seem right to eulogize someone I have never, and now will never, meet, despite his featuring prominently in the entertainment landscape of my childhood. Maybe it’s just that his humor resonated with me, because I see similarities to my own sense of humor… and maybe because his actions today resonate with me, also.

Seems to me that it goes something like this: A good sense of humor is an indication of intelligence. Intelligence is a predisposing factor to depression and mental illness. People who are depressed are also more likely to be humorous, probably as a result of their higher intelligence and perhaps as a result of coping mechanisms developed to mitigate their depression.

Smart people are also marginalized in our society. Those who suffer with depression and other mental illnesses are likewise stigmatized. We use humor to deflect and cover up our wounds, and then we suffer quietly. Alone. As we spend more time alone, we are observed to be introverted. People who are introverted, on the whole, seem to be less desirable companions and are therefore sought out less by their peers. In the end, you get a bunch of smart, suffering, funny people with no close friends.

And then we kill ourselves because human beings aren’t meant to be islands (Bon Jovi had that right) but what choice does a person have when their territory is being colonized by naysayers and doubters and people who, in general, just want to make you feel bad for being who you are and enjoying what you like.

Seriously. Fuck those people.

This is what being a Stigma Fighter is about. Standing up to the unenlightened masses who would prefer to see a greatly homogenized culture instead of embracing and celebrating our differences, mental illness included. I wonder if Mr. Williams, had he known about our mission, would have joined us. Something tells me he might have done just that.

An embrace

When I was in high school, I was not massively popular. In fact, being what I affectionately term as “prematurely middle aged”, I was often teased and mocked for my word choice (what writers and other linguaphiles would call “voice”), in addition to my overall manner. With a few notable exceptions, high school was not a happy time.

Reflecting on that now, though, it is difficult to say if the observations of my philistine classmates, cruel as they were meant to be, were entirely inaccurate. After all, I do use “big words” when more average vocabulary would suffice (see the above use of the word “philistine” in place of “childish ass-hats”). I’m not a partier, I’m not especially adventurous, and I’m typically only extroverted when I am in my element. One classmate of mine, whose face and name have faded into obscurity leaving only his words behind, said that my demeanor reminded him of an old lady sitting down for tea. He added to the overall picture of this meaning by pantomiming sipping from a teacup and holding a saucer, both pinkies out, pursing his lips prudishly.

At the time, it bothered me. He had pressed upon a long-standing insecurity of mine: I am not normal. And how I desperately longed to be normal. I wanted so badly to be accepted by my peers and by my family, I often hid or transformed my interests to be more palatable to the people I wished to impress. When it came to my peers, “fitting in” meant abandoning healthy, productive interests in favor of lukewarm baddassery: smoking, skipping school, majoring in Boyfriendology, and finally landing myself on probation. I would drive my life into the ground to prove to these people that I was as young and carefree as they were, if not more so. (Being a latch-key child sure helped, in this instance.)

But I suppose this young man wasn’t all wrong. Now as an adult, I belong to a group of women who gather regularly to sip tea from old china teacups (though few would accuse us of being prudish, as our conversations can quickly devolve from bawdy humor to downright dick jokes). Sometimes we even wear funny Sunday hats while we do it. I have found I’m happiest and most confident when I’m done up to look like I walked out of a 50’s hair salon. I’m embracing and making peace with my inner old lady, complete with a personal collection of antique teacups.


Rather than being normal, I’d like only to be embraced for my differences, as I will seek to embrace others. After all, who am I trying to impress anymore? And what, pray tell, is “normal”? As another brilliant and insecure woman once said, normal is a curse word. It is a social construct that we hold over our heads and those of the creative, off-beat souls who frighten us with their bravery to be different. Despite the time and energy I have spent over my lifetime hiding or obscuring it, I am different. And even though I have wasted wishes on aspirations of sameness — same as my family, same as my peers, same as my heroes — I’m coming to be quite pleased with our differences.