A Compendium of Collective Nouns
I’ll tell you this straight away, I thoroughly enjoy being a know-it-all, or more precisely, I thoroughly enjoy pretending to be a know-it-all. Spouting off grandiose claims about Herman Melville’s literary intentions at a cocktail party (I’m not terribly popular at parties), peppering my conversations with a multitude of maybe-they’re-real statistics I might’ve heard somewhere at some point about things like the Rockefeller drug laws or the cause of mass mammalian extinctions during the Paleolithic era. I’m basically about two steps away from Cliff Clavin levels of blowhardery. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned thus far in life, it’s that if you pretend to be an authority on something long enough, you eventually become an actual authority on it. This is an important life lesson.
It’s one I worked to remember when Bridget Watson-Payne, my wonderful editor at Chronicle Books, asked me to write the text to accompany a book of Woop Studios’ collective noun posters—it was to be a sort of chronicle of these ancient and modern group names for animals and people, from a clutch of eggs to a covey of quails. The whimsy and spirit that Woop Studios’ put into their graphic design work for the Harry Potter film franchise is in evident display in all of their charming and colorful posters—it’s a great fit of artist and subject, and I’ve been continually honored to have even the slightest connection to it.
In writing the text, I went from pretend authority to—if not actual authority—at least a fairly well-schooled voice on the curious charm and history of collective nouns. And in doing so, I had to tip-toe past—as well as study—the bona fide authorities. James Lipton, he of Inside the Actor’s Studio, wrote the definitive text on the subject, An Exaltation of Larks, and there’s the turn of the last century manuscript from the Philological Society of London entitled Proper Terms: An attempt at a rational explanation of the meanings of the collection of phrases in “The Book of St. Albans.” And then there’s The Book of Saint Albans itself, purportedly written by one Dame Juliana Barnes in 1489—a treatise for young gentlemen to learn how to do things like hunt and hawk and brag about hunting and hawking with other gentlemen over a good glass of claret. Thusly, they needed to know whether they had flushed out a “flock” of geese or a “skein” or a “sounder.” And so these “terms of venery” came to life in the royal halls of the late Middle Ages. And, as language tends to do, they refused to stay put inside the books as static terms. They grew from terms of utility to terms of whimsy, satire, and play.
Amongst hundreds of terms, we have a “draught of butlers,” hinting that among the butler’s happiest duties was the sampling of the wines in his cabinet, and a “never-thriving of jugglers,” which seems rather insulting to the juggler.
And what of the most famous—and memorable—of collective terms, a murder of crows? What did those crows ever do to get such a bad rap? It turns out that many of the avian collective nouns—when not actually associated with hunting—were derived from ancient stories about bird courts—parliaments—wherein crows would judge whether a particular member of their species was to be condemned to die or not, hence a “murder.” Or maybe it just sounds really cool and spooky, what do I know? I’m no expert.
Jay Sacher’s latest book is How to Hang a Picture and Other Essential Lessons for the Stylish Home.
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