Do you use collective nouns?

Today’s post is from Rambler5319 and maybe we will have all learned something by the time we finish reading it. I know I did! Enjoy…


I was wondering recently just how useful (or not) these special terms are. You know the kind of thing I mean: a flock of sheep, a herd of cows, a bouquet of flowers, a fleet of ships, a pack of wolves and so on. Apart from the very common ones of which these are a few I don’t think many people even bother with them. Think of some of these words for collections of various things/animals: a bench of bishops, a covey of grouse, a troop (also a pride) of lions, a shock of wheat, a cast of hawks. How many of those did you know? And if you did know them when was the last time you used them. Supposing you saw 5 or 6 hawks perched on a tree or building, would you say, “Look at that cast of hawks”? I don’t think so. I’m all for people knowing the right words to use  and using them but how many of your friends would know what you were talking about if they heard you use the expression, “a cast of hawks”; more likely you’d say, “Look at all those hawks” or “group of hawks” (providing of course you knew they were hawks!).

Before we go any further how about a quick test? Can you match the collective term in the first column with the noun (person/animal/thing) in the second? (Answers at the end)

1. Skein                Machine guns

2. Wisp                 Pheasants

3. Gang                 Silk

4. Nest                  Snipe

5. Kindle               Peacocks

6. Hand                 Bananas

7. Coffle               Kittens

8. Muster            Slaves

9. Rope                 Pearls

10. Nide               Elk

Hands up if you’ve used any recently? (Not me anyway!)

I wonder if it makes a difference which country you are in. Do those in the US, Canada or the rest of world use different terms for groups of things? What do French/German/Dutch folks use? And do they make more use of the terms than we do with our English versions. We’ll investigate a few below.

I looked up a couple that have multiple collective terms. If I said bees you’d probably say “swarm” for the collective term (or maybe “hive”). How many of you have ever heard of ‘drift’, ‘erst’ or ‘grist’ for describing a large number of bees? Again, not me.

The derivation of swarm in English does seem to come from a very old Germanic word which developed into schwarm in modern German, swerm in Dutch, svärm in Swedish, svaerm in Danish. Ultimately it may have come from as far back as Latin (sussurus meaning ‘hum’) & Sanskrit (svdrati meaning ‘it hums’).

Many cattle are normally as a ‘herd’. Once again this word comes from a Germanic root – herde (Swedish hjord). For pack of wolves the word pack yet again comes from early German form pak.

Geese have 6 terms for a collection of them but are split as to where & how you see them: 2 are for seeing them on land (flock, gaggle), 3 are for seeing them in flight (skein, team, wedge) & 1 is for when you see them in flight but they’re flying close together (plump). I wonder if anyone ever distinguishes them. For me they’re a flock of geese wherever they are and whatever they’re doing!

I really do wonder why we have 10 words for a collection of sheep. I’d say flock and wouldn’t feel it necessary to go any further. However the other nine are: down, drift, drove, herd, hurtle, meinie, mob, parcel, trip. Any the wiser? “I was walking across the valley when I saw a meinie of sheep in the next field” is not a sentence I’d use (or you I guess).

Believe it or not swans come top of the league table for the most collective terms: there are 12, look them up if you’re really interested.

Birds seem to get the more bizarre although there’s probably a reason behind them somewhere in history. Check these out and see if you know any of them (a mixture of English & US origins):

A dissimulation of birds, a bellowing of bullfinches, a wake of buzzards, a chattering of choughs, a gulp of cormorants, a murder of crows, a herd of curlews, a piteousness of doves, a fling of dunlins, a convocation of eagles, a mob of emus, a charm of finches, a flight of goshawks, a covey of grouse, a kettle of hawks, a deceit of lapwings, an exaltation of larks, a plump of moorhens, a company of parrots, a head of pheasants, an unkindness of ravens, a mustering of storks, a dole of turtle doves, a trip of wigeons, a fall of woodcocks, a descent of woodpeckers, a herd of wrens.

I reckon I could use ‘flock’ for all of them and no-one would notice anything wrong. However if I used the correct term most people would guess what I meant but would never have heard the term used that way before. Are you really going to point out to your children on a journey “an unkindness of ravens over there”? I don’t think so!

What is even worse for us in England is, because we don’t have a kind of authority which says what is the right or wrong term in any given situation, there seems to be little uniformity. I heard an item on a radio prog the other day and the expert on that said collective nouns actually only come about through common usage. What this means is that if enough people use a collective term it will be adopted but not if they don’t; so an existing word but with a made-up (by common usage) meaning. Interesting.

How about some modern ones? What would you use for a collection of say bloggers? (Could they be a gang, a posting or a cloud maybe?) Can you think of a more appropriate one? The collective term for computers could be network but that implies they’re connected together which they may not be. What about computer chips? Could you have a pan of them (haha), a board of them or a table of them? What do you reckon for a collection of hard drives?

So there we are. Collective nouns come about because people use them and we don’t seem to invent them for the modern stuff or at least we don’t hear consistent use of any particular one.

(And bizarrely up to the last full stop I’d done 1066 words and you know what happened in 1066. Well I wonder if we’ve conquered the subject or not? Guess I’ll need to ask Norman!)

And just to completely finish here are the quiz answers:

1. Skein                Silk

2. Wisp                 Snipe

3. Gang                 Elk

4. Nest                  Machine guns (what’s that all about? A nest of machine guns)

5. Kindle               Kittens

6. Hand                 Bananas

7. Coffle               Slaves

8. Muster            Peacocks

9. Rope                 Pearls

10. Nide               Pheasants

Did you spot No.6? Yep I put the right answer in the quiz section to see if you might change it.


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