Naming collective nouns is a time-honored alliteration of bards dating back to medieval days. Their linguistic talents have bequeathed to the English language some intriguing terms, especially for groups of animals.
While many are well-known and rather bland (pack of dogs, herd of elephants, swarm of bees), others delight with their pluralistic logic: crash of rhinoceroses, cloud of bats, float of crocodiles, army of ants, ambush of tigers, and cackle of hyenas.
Though archaic, and somewhat challenging to work into modern conversation, several excel in poetic grammatical beauty and are just plain fun to annunciate if only to elicit a listener’s curious smile: a muster of peacocks, a parliament of owls, and an exaltation of larks (the latter also being the title of James Lipton’s excellent 1968 book on the subject).
Then there are the real oddballs, such as a murder of crows. This term probably falls under the category of poetic plurals, although it is largely ignored by ornithologists and bird lovers today. According to the American Society of Crows and Ravens’ web site, the term’s origin has a tenuous link to avian fact: “Occasionally crows will kill a dying crow [that] doesn't belong in their territory or, much more commonly, feed on carcasses of dead crows.”
Names have even been ascribed to groups of imaginary creatures, such as a coven of witches and a blessing of unicorns (although an impalement of unicorns might be more to the point). For Dracula devotee’s, a kiss of vampires has been suggested for a group of the resurrected blood suckers. However, given their technique for securing nutrition, a litigation of vampires might be more fitting.
In addition to animals, there are also many familiar terms for groups of objects including fleet of ships, flight of stairs, belt of asteroids, and chain of islands.
Here, however, restraint should be exercised lest one succumb to the irrepressible creative urge which collective nouning inevitably arouses. Indeed, many practitioners so inflicted have been inspired to create delightful terms such as a rash of dermatologists, a stack of librarians, a host of parasites, and a range of ovens.
And from there, it is a quick descent into the dark world of grammatical absurdity: a fraid of ghosts, a nun of your business, and a charlotte of web sites.
So it didn’t take much convincing to draw me into the realm of silly collective nouns with the following contributions:
A forest of pencils; a Raid of roaches; a scream of kidney stones; an annoyance of reality shows; a waffle of politicians; a condemnation of Elvis impersonators; a nag of spouses; an alimony of ex-wives; a void of urologists; a mess of cooks; a division of mathematicians; an excess of administrators; a concentration of air traffic controllers; a slew of assassins; a body of funeral directors; an intrusion of telemarketers; an extravagance of Democrats; an obstruction of Republicans; a Congress of asses; and a travesty of Jodi Arias excuses.
Along these lines, if you should find yourself at a naval dock greeting family or friends returning from a mission, expect to be surrounded by a hoy of sailors.
Thomas' features and columns have appeared in more than 300 magazines and newspapers, and he is the author of “Raised by the Stars,” published by McFarland. He can be reached at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com