A Menagerie of Animals
January 13, 2003 1:07 PM   Subscribe

Oxford's guide to collective terms for animals is a useful and fascinating although all-too-brief resource. Collective terms for birds are some of my favourites: an unkindness of ravens; a murmuration of starlings; a richness of martens. Bees and sheep seem to have a lot of collective terms. I can't imagine why. Altogether, though, I found one of the terms for for ferrets to be the pick of the bunch.
posted by nthdegx (34 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
English is such a great language.

A bloat of hippopotamuses
A whoop of gorillas
An ambush of tigers ("possibly fanciful")
posted by gottabefunky at 1:19 PM on January 13, 2003

A lot of used carsalesmen (or maybe a heap of them)
A hack of writers
A brief of lawyers
A promise of politicians
posted by alms at 1:22 PM on January 13, 2003

I have always favored the grouping An Exhaltation of Larks, myself--ever since seeing and getting the book entitled the same, I have been looking for something a little less lightweight on the topic. Thanks--this is cool..
posted by y2karl at 1:22 PM on January 13, 2003

The definitive book on the subject is, btw, An Exaltation of Larks.
posted by alms at 1:24 PM on January 13, 2003

A covert of coots.
posted by mookieproof at 1:25 PM on January 13, 2003

a coffle of asses

Surely I can find a use for this phrase at work...
posted by jennyb at 1:29 PM on January 13, 2003

I have been trying, without much success, to work the phrase "an exaltation of larks" into casual conversation for some time now. Not many larks to comment on in L.A., apparently, so there's the rub. (A coffle of asses -- now there's a phrase I feel certain could be used in this town rather easily.)

I've always wondered whether this phenomenon occurs in other languages, or is just a splendid quirk of English. (Languagehat, I'm glancing inquiringly in your direction.) I can order more than one beer in French, German or Irish, but I can't say I've ever come across the need to refer to a group of magpies ("comment d'it-on tittering?").
posted by scody at 1:38 PM on January 13, 2003

I will forever refer to 3 or more deer as a "flock of deers" after my nephew coined it one sunny afternoon, thereby preventing me from smashing into said deer with my Mercury Lynx.
posted by brittney at 1:49 PM on January 13, 2003

I stayed in a motel in Big Rapids, Mi. and wandered about one cold winter night and saw maybe a few thousand crows behind the motel. A 'murder' of crows.
posted by JohnR at 1:58 PM on January 13, 2003

Rebecca Blood has been collecting collective nouns for goths for some time now. Fun word game.
posted by jessamyn at 2:17 PM on January 13, 2003

A sorrow of whores.
posted by silusGROK at 2:23 PM on January 13, 2003

This could easily extend to online communities, you know:

A stack of MeFites.

A paroxysm of Freepers.

A hat of Farkers.

A cesspool of Gawkers. What?

A grep of Slashdotters.

ad nauseam
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:24 PM on January 13, 2003 [1 favorite]

A grep of Slashdotters. That's awesome!
posted by hammurderer at 2:34 PM on January 13, 2003

It took me a while to get 'a stack of MeFites', but when I tried coming up with something better, I realized just how much sense it made, being apropos to things that stack, things that come in stacks, and the thing that stacks stacks of things (on its dearly departed head).

Actually, I just like saying "stack". Stack stack stack.
posted by wanderingmind at 3:04 PM on January 13, 2003

A brawl of MeFites, maybe?
posted by furiousthought at 3:04 PM on January 13, 2003

I still think it should be a gomorrah of Saddams.
posted by WolfDaddy at 3:19 PM on January 13, 2003 [1 favorite]

"I still think it should be a gomorrah of Saddams."

How about a a kaboodle of kittens?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:20 PM on January 13, 2003

Or just a kaboodle. Whatever works for you.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:21 PM on January 13, 2003

A load of bollocks.

with apologies to Messrs Smith and Jones
posted by John Shaft at 3:25 PM on January 13, 2003

I like a murder of crows. You have to say it in the right tone of voice, of course. But this is fun!

An obstinancy of buffalo.
A glaring of cats.
A chattering of choughs.
A covert of coots.
A cloud of gnats
A cry of hounds
A fluther of jellyfish.
A stud of mares (?!?)
A pandemonium of parrots
A parliament of owls
A congregation of plovers
A turmoil of porpoises
A crash of rhinoceros
A dopping of sheldrake
A wisp of snipe
A destruction of wild cats
A zeal of zebras

And John Shaft, it is actually a drove of bullocks! =)
posted by cx at 3:35 PM on January 13, 2003

how is it decided what's "fanciful'? Specifically, how is an unkindness of ravens or a murder of crows not fanciful? I mean, I understand that these are terms widely used, but they clearly stem from a poetic place, no?
posted by mdn at 4:06 PM on January 13, 2003

A 'bike of ants'? But how do their feet reach the pedals?
posted by carter at 4:46 PM on January 13, 2003

The term for three conies or hounds is a couple and a half?
posted by Guy Smiley at 4:58 PM on January 13, 2003

A cackle of goths.

A keg of fratboys.
posted by djseafood at 5:28 PM on January 13, 2003

I've always wondered whether this phenomenon occurs in other languages, or is just a splendid quirk of English. (Languagehat, I'm glancing inquiringly in your direction.)

This is a good question, and I've wondered about it myself. First, read this short and well-written article on the English terms (there's a very funny joke near the end). I suspect that English may be unique because the influence of the very popular Book of St Albans of 1486 (discussed therein) is unlikely to have been duplicated in other countries. I'm sure hunters elsewhere had comparable terms, but they would have stayed within the professional circle (so to speak) and never have penetrated the wider world of literature, and thus would have died out with the premodern culture of hunting. But it's possible that other languages have comparably specific terms (though probably without the facetious additions) that simply don't show up in bilingual dictionaries, like other rare words that aren't of much use to anyone but specialists. If I find out more, I'll report back. Meanwhile, we should keep in mind the words of wisdom with which the Quinion article concludes:
We've got to make a distinction, of course, between these fanciful or poetic collective names and the many examples we use every day, like pride of lions, pack of dogs, flight of stairs, flock of birds, string of racehorses, and gaggle of geese. These are common and unremarkable, though in some cases hardly less exotic and mysterious in origin than any in The Book of St Albans all those years ago.
posted by languagehat at 6:10 PM on January 13, 2003

Exactly, Languagehat. It's a form of poetry, that's all.

Generally speaking, in explanatory writing the collective noun for a group of {insert noun here} is "group". Terms like "alliance" or "family" or "infestation" or "forest" are contextually useful to imply a relationship among the members of the group, or a rationale for their selection from the set of all possible things. Otherwise, I would suggest only using the common usage ones, unless you have some reason to write poetically (even as flimsy a reason as impressing a threadsworth of Metafilterites).
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:08 PM on January 13, 2003

I've always wondered whether this phenomenon occurs in other languages

It's very common in Japanese.
posted by SPrintF at 7:58 PM on January 13, 2003

Sorry, SPrintF, but that's not really the same. Most East Asian languages (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Lao, and Burmese, for instance, as well as Japanese) have what are called "classifiers" separating numerals from nouns. We have this to a limited extent in English (a piece of string, a pair of shoes), but they have it for just about everything: you can't say "one person," you have to say "one piece person" (in Chinese, i ge ren). There is usually a general classifier (Chinese ge) that can be used if you don't want to be bothered with the exact one, and a bunch of specific ones for trees, animals, long thin things, flat things, you name it. While superficially similar to the collective terms we're discussing, one obvious difference is that they're used for a single item, person, etc., as well as a group. Another is that, as far as I know, none of these languages has specific classifiers for each species of animal. Nice try, though.
posted by languagehat at 8:39 PM on January 13, 2003

For some reason, one of the oldest links in my bookmarks file is The Collective Noun Page, featuring such gems as:

A Sodom of shepherds
A Sousa of marching bands
A Rand of Objectivists
A passel of brats
A magnum of hitmen

and much much more
posted by jazon at 9:17 PM on January 13, 2003

Stolen from jazon's link:

Metafilter: A posse of cock-turkeys.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:45 PM on January 13, 2003

i wonder if, at least in part, this quirk of the English language is because it "borrows" so heavily from other languages.
posted by deborah at 10:36 PM on January 13, 2003

...an overabundance of lawyers/used car salesmen/other low creatures...
posted by five fresh fish at 3:05 PM on January 14, 2003

Here are the Portuguese terms, courtesy of the Enigmatic Mermaid. Perhaps when Miguel returns he can translate some of the better ones for us.
posted by languagehat at 6:33 AM on January 18, 2003

A sorrow of whores.

A pride of loins?

An essay of trollops?
posted by Vidiot at 11:43 PM on January 18, 2003

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