So today, beavering away at the coal-face of capitalist society, we took a break to have a laugh about pushy parents – you know the type, the ones always lurking in the wings at performances – usually artistic, thespian or sporting – abusing the world from the sidelines, photobombing their famous kids, cheering over-enthusiastically and generally making a public arse of themselves as they live vicariously through their offspring.
What, someone pondered, was the right name for a collection of such people? Was there a collective noun for these horrible folks?
Someone else suggested A Smother of Parents, which had us all giggling with its appropriateness. So spread the word. A Smother of Parents. Let’s see if we can get it popularised!
Collective Nouns are a bit of a thing of ours. We all know “A Murder of Crows”, of course – that’s a favourite – but did you also know that it’s an Unkindness of Ravens?
Don’t know what the Corvus ever did to offend everyone.
Maybe the genus is on the nose because Ravens became forever associated with the Tower of London and the bloodthirsty goings on there, and Crows are carrion feeders, of course, so, you know, just generally, “ugh”.
But then again some of their close relations get off a little more easily. Jackdaws – well, they’re “A Clattering” – and Rooks are the wonderful “Parliament” of Rooks, which perfectly reflects the racket generated by a rookery. The same noun is often applied to Owls, by the way. One can surmise the former is because of the mindless noise generated across the benches, and the latter a reflection of the supposed wisdom of owls.
Some as less well known, and quite obscure. Did you know those guys caterwauling in the back alley are called a “Cluster” of cats? No idea why. Or that a group of Peacocks are (quite perfectly) called an “Ostentation”? It’s a Charm of Finches, which surely reflects their melodic chirping, but why is it a Knot of Toads? And what on earth is a “Neverthriving” of jugglers when it’s at home?
A group of monks seen together (in England at least) has been known since 1486 as “An Abominable Sight of Monks”, from The Book of Saint Albans (or Boke of Seynt Albans), a compilation of matters relating to the interests of the time of a gentleman. It is also known by titles that are more accurate, such as “The Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms“. This edition credits the book, or at least the part on hunting, to Juliana Berners as there is an attribution at the end of the 1486 edition reading: “Explicit Dam Julyans Barnes in her boke of huntyng.” It contains three essays, on hawking, hunting, and heraldry. It became popular, and went through many editions, quickly acquiring an additional essay on angling.
Interestingly, the section on heraldry contains many coats-of-arms printed in six colours (including black ink and the white of the page), and was the first colour printing ever carried out in England. Dame Juliana Berners (or Barnes or Bernes) was believed to have been the prioress of Sopwell Priory near St Albans but the book is in fact a metrical form of much older matter, going back at least to the reign of the ill-fated Edward II of England (1283-1327), and written in French: the Le Art de Venerie of the huntsman Guillaume Twici.
Anyhow, apart from the marvellous “Abominable Sight” of monks, the book contains, appended, a large list of special collective nouns for animals, such as “gaggle of geese” and the like. Amongst these are numerous humorous collective nouns for different professions, such as a “Diligence of Messengers”, a “Melody of Harpers”, a “Blast of Hunters”, “a Subtlety of Sergeants”, “a Gaggle of Women”, and a “Superfluity of Nuns”.
Sometimes there are multiple collective nouns for one item, reflecting the fact that different parts of Britain developed languages that remained quite separate until the middle ages, and thereafter continued with strong local dialects (some of which persist to this day). Thus a “Congregation of Plovers” can also rightly be termed a “band”, a “flight”, a “leash”, a “stand” or a “wing”.
Ducks are even more complicated. The very obvious but nonetheless charming “Paddling” of ducks (which should only be used when ducks are actually in the water, apparently) is nevertheless contested by supporters of “badelynge” (an old Saxon word for paddling, perhaps, that has survived only in this context?), a “flush”, a “brace”, a “bunch”, a “dabbling”, a “dopping”, (possibly a corruption of dipping?), a “plump”, a “raft”, a “safe”, a “skein”, a “sword, a “string” or a “team”. Phew.
On the same bit of lake you might also spot a “Whiteness of Swans”, which is a very ancient name, also expressed as a “whiting”.
And it would be wrong of us, given our geographic location, not to remind everyone in the northern hemisphere that it’s a “Mob of Kangaroos”. And for other southern hemisphere types, it’s nice to remember that it’s “A Stubbornness of Rhinoceroses”. And for our Indian readers, don’t forget it’s an “Ambush of Tigers”. Your life may depend on it.
So what’s YOUR favourite Collective Noun, Dear Reader? Do please let us know.
And what’s your suggestion of the best possible Collective Noun for … Collective Nouns? We’ll dream up a prize for the best idea!
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