A Curiosity of Collective nouns
Collective nouns are one of the many curiosities of the English language.
It is often difficult to see any connection between them and the groups they identify.
‘a gaggle of geese’
‘a murder of crows’?
Have you ever wondered where some of these peculiar terms came from?
Many of the collective nouns we use today have roots far back in the medieval period. Many of them were first recorded in the 15th century in publications known as Books of Courtesy – manuals on the various aspects of noble living designed to prevent young aristocrats from embarrassing themselves by saying the wrong thing at court.
The earliest of these documents to survive to the present day was The Egerton Manuscript dating from around 1450 which featured a list of 106 collective nouns.
Several other manuscripts followed the most influential of which appeared in 1486 in The Book of St Albans – a treatise on hunting hawking and heraldry written mostly in verse and attributed to the nun Dame Juliana Barnes (sometimes written Berners) prioress of the Priory of St Mary of Sopwell near the town of St Albans.
This list features 164 collective nouns beginning with those describing the ‘beasts of the chase’ but extending to include a wide range of animals and birds (and intriguingly an extensive array of human professions and types of person).
FOCUSING here on those describing animals and birds – they have diverse sources of inspiration:
Some are named for the characteristic behaviour of the animals – ‘a leap of leopards’, ‘a busyness of ferrets’
Some are named for the use they were put to by humans – ‘a yoke of oxen’, ‘a burden of mules’
Sometimes they’re given group nouns that describe their young – ‘a covert of coots’, ‘a kindle of kittens’
Others by the way they respond when flushed -‘a sord of mallards’, ‘a rout of wolves’, ‘a spring of teal’
Other times they are named for a personality trait they were believed to possess and this is the explanation behind the dastardly sounding ‘murder, mob, horde of crows‘ – probably deriving from medieval peasants’ fears that they had been sent by the Devil or were witches in disguise.
Many bird species have more than one collective noun – as with crows – there are many terms to describe geese – depending on whether they’re flying (skein, wedge, nide) or gathered on water (plump) or land (gaggle)
More collective nouns for birds:
A cast of merlins
A conspiracy of ravens
An asylum of cuckoos
A curfew of curlews
A trembling of finches
A chime of wrens
A parcel of linnets
A swatting of flycatchers
A prayer of godwits
A crown of kingfishers
A chattering of choughs
A commotion of coots
A worm of robins
A parliament of rooks
An exultation of skylarks
A murmuration of starlings
A hermitage of thrushes
A volery of wagtails
A confusion of chiffchaffs
A museum of waxwings
Got any favourites? Want to know more?
You might find this book interesting:
Chloe Rhodes – An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns