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.)
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
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.