Sometimes, I can’t help but marvel at how creative the English language can be.
Take, for instance, the terms we assign as collective nouns to groups of animals. Most languages have two or three terms at best to describe these gatherings, but in English, there are hundreds! Although we have terms which can be applied fairly universally, such as “group”, “pack” or “herd”, the English language does not stop there. Ohhhh no. Instead, most of the species in the animal kingdom also possess their own collective noun.
These tend to reflect the personified traits we superimpose onto the different species, which not only offers the English speaker a rich and evocative range of collective nouns to keep in their literary arsenal, but is also indicative of the collective consciousness of the English people as a whole.
Let me highlight a few examples to better explain what I mean. The owl, long considered to be an intelligent bird, is personified in the attributes of studiousness, intellect and a ‘sharp’ mind. As a result, a collection of owls is known as a ‘parliament’. Now, given the way we personify the owl, it is not actually that difficult to imagine a line of bespectacled owls sat on the back benches of the House of Lords, occasionally tapping their talons or nodding their heads to demonstrate agreement.
However, if we consider another bird of the animal kingdom – the goose – we see an entirely different story. Though majestic in the air, geese lose their glamour once they’re waddling on the ground. That, combined with their incessant honking, has led to them being collectively referred to as a ‘gaggle’ (though I should point out that this term exclusively refers to their group when they are on the ground – in the air, they are known as a ‘wedge’ instead). For me, the term ‘gaggle’ instantly conjures the image of a drunken hen-party, out on the town, making a racket. How different to the majesty and sophistication of a ‘parliament’ they are!
Sometimes, the associations we have made are very strong, even when these are quite far-fetched. Lions, for instance, are known as a ‘pride’ – indicative of their perceived courage, valour, strength and dominance within the animal kingdom. Because of this, the lion has long been a symbol of the British empire – despite the fact that the closest England’s green and pleasant lands have ever come to the great beast is the domesticated house-cat. Three lions emblazon the chests of our national footballers, cricketers, rugby players, and so on, marking them as the ‘pride’ of England.
However, one of the animals most commonly seen in our woodland (and, more frequently in recent years, being driven into urban areas in the search for food) is villainised by this personification. I am talking, of course, about the fox. Throughout our history, the fox has been used as a symbol of cunning, deception and treacherousness. In William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and also in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the proud lion is represented as the direct contrast of the cunning, lowly fox (an issue I cover in some depth in my eBook, First Class English Literature Essays – click here for more information). Subsequently, a group of foxes is known as a ‘skulk’. There’s no reason for us to think of foxes in this way – they’re actually rather sweet creatures (as can be seen here – adorable!), mainly harmless, and only prone to ‘skulking’ around looking for food when they’re stuck in the city, away from their natural habitat (and the source of their natural diet). However, this stereotypical personification has endured, and remains present in our vocabulary to this day.
Another interesting villainisation comes in the form of crows , who are collectively known as a ‘murder’. We never linguistically outgrew the superstition surrounding crows and their presence symbolising death, although the world has moved on considerably since the emergence of this myth in the Middle Ages. Ravens, too, are scorned, referred to as an ‘unkindness’ (which, really, is kind of ironic, as we’re the ones arguably doing them an unkindness by assigning them such a noun!) Ravens, crows and magpies are all closely related, and are amongst the most intelligent birds in the animal kingdom. Crows, for instance, are able to recognise human faces and even alert other crows to people who may be a threat (based on past experiences). They’re not even fooled by disguises! (which leads me to think we should call them a ‘Scooby-Doo’ of crows…)
As noted above, though, most of the collective nouns used to describe groups of the different species in the animal kingdom are fantastic: diverse, flamboyant, and deliciously expressive.
I have listed a few of my firm favourites below. Why not comment with one of your own choosing?
A charm, or tiding, of magpies
A gaggle of geese
A cloud of bats
A mob of kangaroos
A leap of leopards
A mischief of mice
A crash, or stubbornness, of rhinoceroses
An ambush of tigers
A blessing of unicorns
A huddle of walruses
A shiver of sharks