I recently ran across the book Brian Wildsmith’s Fishes in the Library’s collection. It’s a small book that pairs colorful illustrations with whimsical collective nouns for groups of various sorts of fish.
Many collective nouns, such as flock of birds, school of fish, class of students, or pack of hounds, are authorized or accepted terms in English. However, there is a seemingly limitless variety of group nouns being created by everyday English language speakers. The generation of these terms is a word game that allows speakers to customize their language on the fly, displaying their cleverness and imagination. Collective terms tend to focus on a characteristic or behavior of the thing being named.
For example, a paddling of ducks, or a murmuration of starlings. A quick google search for collective nouns provides many examples of this dynamic language generation.
The writer of this blog details how attendees at a mathematics conference came up with group nouns for mathematicians. My favorite was “A distribution of probabilists.”
Here is a list of group nouns for Pokemon.
The website All-sorts.org leverages the power of Twitter to collect group nouns. They recently held a contest in which participants submitted images illustrating their favorite collective noun. Here is “An Orchard of Macs” by Chris Dobson…
and “A Tangle of Octupuses” by Rachel Wilson.
Even Downton Abbey gets in on the fun in season four. While watching several men who are contending for Lady Mary’s attention depart, Rose asks, “What’s a group noun for suitors?” Cora replies, “What do you think? A desire?” Rosamund responds, “A desire of suitors. Very good.”
While we are all familiar with these fun terms, I’ll bet you didn’t know that the tradition of generating clever or whimsical group nouns goes back at least to the late 1400’s. The Boke of St. Albans (1486) is a manual on hunting, hawking, and heraldry for the education of gentlemen. This education includes the correct terms for groups of animals. Knowing the jargon is a critical indication of membership in any group and aristocrats are no exception. The list, Companys of Beestys and Fowlys, provides the appropriate terminology for discussing groups of animals in a hunting setting.
Interestingly it also includes quite a few humorous terms for groups of people and professions. Demonstrating that people at that time enjoyed clever or especially apt terms just as we do today. And perhaps suggesting to gentleman that displaying their wit and humor by creating such a term is acceptable behavior.
Later books of courtesy reprinted many of these terms and expanded on them. The Gentleman’s Recreation (1674) and The Complete Sportsman (1775) are two other examples that the Library holds in addition to later editions of The Boke of St. Albans.
In his article, Proper Terms: An attempt at a rational explanation of the meanings of the Collection of Phrases in “The Book of St Albans,” 1486, entitled “The Compaynys of beestys and fowlys” and similar lists, for The Philological Society in 1914, John Hodgkin collects lists of these collective nouns found in early manuscripts and books and analyzes their generation and historical development. The collection of lists is worth a look, not least for the ease of reading them compared to reading the historical fonts found in the original books. Hodgkin argues that many of these words were never used in actual conversation and that some of them were not even meant as collective nouns at all. He goes on to give the likely origins of each of these terms, many of which are confusing to modern readers, but reveal the same sense of humor and whimsy as our modern-made terms once they are explained.
For example the collective term for tapsters or wine drawers is listed as, “A Promise of Tapsters.” “Refers to the usual habit of tapsters or wine drawers, who say that they “are coming now, sir” when they have every intention of attending to about a dozen other thirsty souls first” (p. 163).
What are some of your favorite collective nouns? Let me know in the comments section.
Erica Libhart has served as the Mars Technical Services Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2016. The focus of her position is collection services, working to increase accessibility to NSLM’s collection of books, periodicals, and archival materials. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact Erica by e-mail