The Whimsy and Wonder of Collective Nouns

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Last night I was having dinner with my father and he told me about an incident at his golf game during the previous week. Spotting a group of completely black birds, he pointed and drew the attention of his golfing companions and said, “Look. There’s a murder.” A murder of crows, he meant, “murder” being the collective noun for a group of that particular kind of bird.

“You know,” one of his golfing companions responded, “often in Australia when we think we’re looking at crows, we’re actually looking at Australian ravens.”

“What’s the collective noun for a group of ravens?” another of the group of golfers asked. They all looked at each other blankly.
Knowing my love of the English language, Dad relayed this conversation to me over dinner and asked, “Do you know what the collective noun is for ravens?”

I didn’t. And because I can’t stand an unanswered question, I immediately Googled it on my phone.

“Oh, if that’s right, that’s fantastic!” I cried as I scrolled through the top page of the Google search results.

“What? What is it?” my dad wanted to know.

“Hang on while I make absolutely sure that’s right because if it is, it’s wonderful.” I clicked into the Macquarie Dictionary’s list of collective nouns and scrolled down to the bird in question where it confirmed that the collective noun for ravens (Australian or otherwise) is “unkindness”. An unkindness of ravens.

My dad and I were in linguistic heaven. We both share an appreciation for the English language and we often talk about the now frequent and heart-breaking breaking of the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. (Perhaps a little more surprising is that our mutual appreciation has evolved from two entirely different sources. I attribute his to learning Latin at high school when he was a teenager and I attribute mine to being taught English properly by an old-school and old teacher when I was attending one of the four primary schools I went to as a child. But it was really only when I entered my thirties that my father and I discovered we both have the same love. I think there is an element of genetics to it. We also both hate pineapple on pizza and red meat that isn’t cooked through properly. We love discovering these similarities because I only lived with my father until I was six, when my parents got divorced. So many of the parallels between us therefore can’t be due to nurturing and then must be hereditary. At least I think so.)

As I read down the list of collective nouns, I was struck by how many wonderful and whimsical words there are in this category of the English language. A parliament of owls. A murmuration of starlings. A descension of woodpeckers.

“A dissension?” my father asked.

“No, descension, as in descend,” I clarified. A clowder of cats. A business of ferrets. A knot of frogs. A harem of fur seals, because there is usually one male and many, many females. A smack of jellyfish. A mob of kangaroos. A kindle of kittens. A tiding of magpies. An ostentation of peacocks.

According to the Macquarie Dictionary website, many of the collective nouns are archaic and there is doubt that any of them were actually used by the hunters for whom these hunting terms were originally compiled. There have also been some new collective nouns coined more recently, including a crash of rhinoceroses. But to me, it’s the old ones that are the most fabulous of all.

Collective nouns don’t get much of a workout in the English language today and as it evolves, they are a likely candidate for dropping out of usage altogether. It would be a terrible shame considering how creative and joyful their rare use is, especially for word nerds like me and my dad. So if you can work one or two into your writing, not only might it start a discussion amongst lovers of the English language, it might go a short way towards delaying the demise of collective nouns.

By the way, does anyone know what the collective noun for a group of golfers is?

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