Monday, March 21, 2011

A Lamentation of Swans: in praise of collective nouns

A Lamentation of Swans: in praise of Collective Nouns (see below)

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Before I write about this blog's main topic, I'd like to tell you some exciting news.

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Over 100,000 Tundra swans arrived at Long Point Bay in Norfolk, Ontario last week, after crossing Lake Erie during their spring migration from North Carolina and Chesapeake Bay in the U.S. After refueling, they’ll slowly make their way to nest in the Arctic Circle.

It’s an awe-inspiring sight to see thousands of these swans in flight overhead. I once had the opportunity to see such mass arrival, over 30 years ago, when I volunteered to band birds at the Long Point Bird Observatory in the area.  I will never forget the swans' majesty (nor deafening honk).

Thinking of  swans “en groupe,”  (or collective mass), my thoughts returned to the subject of yesterday’s blog: the beauty of the English language, and my desire to share it in its many forms. How does a collective mass of swans relate to any of this?  Follow me.

I started wondering what the name of the collective noun was to describe a group of swans. I knew it was a herd of elephants, team of horses,  clutch of chickens and  pod of whales. But what would I call a bunch of swans? 

A little research revealed the answer. A Lamentation (of course)! 

You see, I’ve returned, as promised, to the richness in  our language. What could be more beautiful to say, picture or see than a Lamentation of Swans. Parliament of Owls, perhaps?

One of the craziest oddities of the English language is that there are so many different collective nouns that all mean "group" but which are specific to what particular thing there is a group of: a herd of elephants, a crowd of people, a box of crayons, a pad of paper, etc.

There is great diversity in the collective nouns associated with animals, from a sleuth of bears to a murder of crows. I so enjoy these terms, I couldn’t resist making what I hope will be a very enjoyable list, below, of the correct terms to describe some  animal groups. Some terms you’ll know (swarm of bees, pack of mules), others you’ll simply wonder ‘how and why did anyone come up with a name like ' chine' to describe a  group of them darn crazy polecats?'

I’m not sure who made up the terms, but whoever did deserves a medal. Some are beautiful (exhaltation of larks!), some fun, and all, clever. The choice of group name doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason in regards to the animal it describes. There may be a wonderful story behind each, though, so I will do a bit of further research, Should I find anything of interest, I’ll share.

In the meantime, I’ll assume that someone with a real love of English, a bit of mischief in his or her soul, and great vocabulary came up with the idea for a husk of hares, convocation of eagles, clan of hyenas and  murder of crows.

The collective nouns below have been selected. Please excuse my formatting. I'm giving up in my quest for getting the lines straight.

For a full list of the collective nouns, click here  Excuse the poor set-up below!)

colony            of            ants
shrewdness   of            apes
congress        of            baboons
sleuth            of            bears
lodge             of            beavers
hive              of             bees
swarm          of            bees
flock             of            birds
sounder       of            boar
brace            of            bucks
swarm          of            butterflies
wake            of             buzzards
drove           of             cattle
clutch           of            chicks
cartload       of            chimpanzees
bed               of            clams
quiver          of            cobras
cover            of            coots
band            of            coyotes
congregation of        crocodiles
murder        of           crows
herd             of            deer
litter            of            dogs (puppies)
pod              of            dolphins
aerie            of            eagles
herd            of            elk
mob            of            emus
business    of            ferrets
school        of            fish
leash          of            foxes
army          of            frogs
gaggle        of           geese
colony       of            gulls
prickle      of            hedgehogs
brood        of            hens
team         of            horses
cry            of            hounds
charm      of            hummingbirds
scold        of            jays
smack      of           jellyfish
deceit       of           lapwings
exaltation of          larks
leap         of            leopards
pride       of            lions
lounge    of            lizards
plague    of            locusts
sord        of            mallards
company of          moles
pack        of           mules
parliament of       owls
bed         of            oysters
company of          parrots
covey      of            partridges
flock        of            pigeons
string      of            ponies
pod         of            porpoises
pack       of            rats
rhumba of           rattlesnakes
storytelling  of    ravens
crash    of            rhinocerouses
run       of             salmon
harem  of            seals
shiver   of            shark
flock     of           sheep
chine   of            polecats
string  of            ponies
passel  of           possum
warren of          rabbits
nursery of         raccoons
rhumba of        rattlesnakes
crash of             rhinocerouses
murmuration of  starlings
pod       of         whales
pack     of         wolves
zeal       of        zebras

Try dropping a few of these fabulous terms casually into conversation one day, as in:  “I heard that a rumba of rattlesnakes was making it difficult to hike in the Grand Canyon.”  People will beg for more, so it’s probably good to memorize ten of your favourite nouns to keep your audience happy.

My favourites? Passel of possum; storytelling of ravens; exhaltation of larks; lounge of lizards and deceit of lapwings.  

What are yours? 

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