Thursday, 25 June 2009

A cluster of collective nouns

A few days ago, I received a text message from my brother lamenting a poster he had seen outside a bar, which read ‘Be Part of the Pack for the Lions Tour’. I replied that I might let its creators off as they were referring to rugby, but they should have run with something like ‘Lions Tour 2009: Feel the Pride’.

The bar staff obviously thought they were being clever by punning on the rugby pack (the forwards; you know, the ones who do all the scrummaging and stuff) and a pack of lions. But we all know that the collective noun for lions is a pride – so my pun is far superior. Pack is the collective noun for hounds.

A collective noun is defined as ‘a singular noun referring to a group of people or things’, although people seem most fascinated by those referring to groups of animals, and it’s not surprising given the wonderful images they create. Author Ali Smith was kind enough to write to us with some of her favourite words, one of which was a shrewdness of apes, which instantly makes me think of their strangely human faces and wrinkly foreheads.

Some collective nouns are so common that we barely realise that they’re collective nouns – a swarm of bees, for example. Others are familiar but have lost none of their power: think of that pride of lions, holding their heads high, kings of the jungle, or a gaggle of geese cackling away to themselves. And did you know that geese are only a gaggle when on the ground or in water? In flight, they’re a skein of geese: flying in a loose formation, tied together by the thermals we cannot see.

I particularly enjoy obscure collective nouns: a kindle of kittens, warm and soft but sparky as they learn to use their claws; an ambush of tigers, stalking their prey; a skulk of foxes, scavenging in the twilight; a tribe of goats, nomads on the hills.

The collective nouns for birds are my favourites, conveying a cacophony of colours, sounds and moods. Compare a parliament of owls, serious and studious, to a pandemonium of parrots where all hell breaks loose. A watch of nightingales, sentinels of darkness, give way to an exaltation of larks celebrating the new day. A murmuration of starlings go about their business, talking under their breath, and a rafter of turkeys line the barn. In folklore, birds are often regarded as omens, and sinister connotations can be found in a murder of crows and an unkindness of ravens.

Such is our interest in the collective nouns for animals that we’ve listed them in two of our most recent editions: they can be found in The Chambers Thesaurus and in the Language Lovers’ Miscellany included in Chambers Concise Dictionary. Now my aim is find a suitable collective noun for ‘lexicographers’ – I’ve had a lexicon suggested to me and I’m quite partial to a drudge in homage to Samuel Johnson’s irreverent definition of a lexicographer as ‘a harmless drudge’. Answers on a postcard [or suggestions in the comments section], please…

Naomi Farmer

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Penguat said...

As a suggestion for the collective noun of lexicographers, how about a book? or a language? or, as you are, in a sense, collectors, a hoard?

Naomi Farmer said...

Ooh, I like a language of lexicographers – nice alliterative ring to it. Book's a bit broad, could be better to refer to authors or publishers in general or such. And I'm fairly sure that hoard is reserved for use when talking about dragons. Let me know if you think up any more...

Stan said...

'Drudge' isn't a bad collective term for lexicographers, and it also connotes the toil of the work - perhaps too well! I quite like 'hoard' too. My suggestions for today are 'leafage' and 'definitude'.

On a related note, a few months ago I invited readers to propose a collective term for stonechats, and one suggested 'kindness', which I'm most taken by.

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