Wednesday, February 17, 2016

All Together Now

Flamboyance of Flamingos
photo credit

Of my many linguistic obsessions, collective nouns are near the top of the list. In case you're not as nerdy as me, collective nouns are the names given to groups of people or things. "Herd of elephants," "school of fish," "pride of lions," and "flock of birds" are some common examples. 

But collective nouns don't stop there! Every group has one, and they are almost always delightful, surprising, satisfying, and poetic, revealing something wonderful about the creature in question. When I was in college, my friends and I used to play a game we called "collectives." Someone would name a noun and we would all try to come up with the best collective for that group. One of my friends had a large, thick book (this was the time before easy access to the Internet) which listed all the official collectives. We ended each round by looking up the real answers, which were almost always better than whatever we'd come up with. (As you can see, I've always been extremely cool.) 

One of the best things about collective nouns is that they arise organically. There's no governing body that dictates how and when the English language should grow and evolve - it simply does and always has. Collective nouns are part of that growth. Some have been around for centuries, while new versions and additions emerge regularly, as they're needed.  This is why there are sometimes multiple collectives assigned to a group. For example, a group of cats can be referred to as a cluster, a glaring, or a pounce - it's up to you (and, possibly, the cats). 

I can go months without thinking too hard about collectives. Then one morning, I'll write a scene with a group of pelicans. I'll wonder what to call that group, stop writing in order to look it up, and discover that the correct term is "squadron." This will be so delightful that I'll look up more birds, and learn that at the beach you might also encounter a flotilla of seagulls, or - and this is where the English language gets really generous with its gifts - a flamboyance of flamingos. Once I start looking up collectives I can't stop, and suddenly I'm late for work and I've only written three sentences, one of which is, "a squadron of pelicans flew over them." Worth it. 

Since that squadron of pelicans, I've been more obsessed than usual with collectives. Here are some of the my personal favorites. 

A clutch of eggs. 
A parliament of owls. 
A mischief of mice. 
An unkindness of ravens. 
A fall of lambs. 
An intrusion of cockroaches. 
A murder of crows.
A memory of elephants. 
A dare of moths. 
A party of rainbow fish. 
A rhumba of rattlesnakes. 

And just in case you thought us humans were too special and unique to be grouped together like animals and insects: 

An eloquence of lawyers. 
A tabernacle of bakers. 
A scolding of seamstresses.
A field of runners. 
A blush of boys. 
A giggle of girls.
A pomposity of professors.
A siren of paramedics. 
An ambush of widows. 
An obscurity of poets. 
A worship of writers.