An Accumulation of Strangeness

I’d really like to believe that many of the strange but charming nouns of assemblage (aka specific group nouns or collective nouns) that exist were the result of drunken mischief at the end of a lexicographers’ Christmas party. Or something like that. How else could you explain the fact that if you came across a group of unicorns hanging out together, that’d be ‘a glory of unicorns’? Well, maybe that’s a bad example as single unicorn sightings are pretty rare. Look skyward and, if you’re lucky, you might possibly see ‘a convocation of eagles’. Nevertheless, you’re far more likely to encounter ‘a nest of ants’ in your day-to-day life. That sounds logical, at least. Even if we called them ‘an army of ants’, which is possible, it would make sense. You might need ‘a team of horses’ if your preferred mode of transport is a carriage. Fair enough. But there’s a line you can cross here, beyond which all apparent logic and reason seem to be abandoned. And that’s when it gets really interesting.

It wasn’t drunk lexicographers that brought all this strangeness to the English language. It was posh men in the 15th century showing off to each other about how clever they were, how many words and expressions they knew in English and how good they were at using them. Well, most probably it was. But if I were a drunk lexicographer, I’d want a piece of the action too.

When posh men in the 15th century weren’t showing off to one another, they were probably out hunting. This goes some way to explaining why many nouns of assemblage refer to members of the animal kingdom. Within this group, there is a prominence of birds. ‘A prominence of birds’ isn’t one of these noun phrases, but I suppose it could be.

A murder of crows

This is the best of them all and crows deserve that honour. They’re smart, cool, somewhat sinister and they rock.

But don’t you ever cross a crow. They have incredible face recognition capacity and will come back for revenge! Of course, their sinister character explains why they got the ‘murder’ tag. Alfred Hitchcock knew how to exploit their dark side in ‘The Birds’. Considering his disgraceful behaviour towards Tippi Hedren during the shooting of the film, it’s a wonder the crows didn’t take revenge on him.

A Murmuration of Starlings

The word ‘murmuration’ sounds so great. /ˈmɜː.məˈreɪ.ʃn/ It’s got that sound of the letters -ur- /ɜ:/ (also present in ‘murder’) then there’s a lazy schwa sound in the second syllable, the /eɪ/ dipthong (how we pronounce the letter a) and the final /ʃn/ (shn) sound, which is how we always pronounce ‘-tion’. It’s the act of murmuring (a softly spoken or almost inaudible utterance), and, far more importantly, it’s this:

The suffix ‘-ling’ means small; a small duck is a duckling. So what does that make starlings? Little stars.

A Lamentation of Swans

Many people lamented the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in the summer of 2022. Clearly, it was a big deal for much of the population. Yeah, OK, whatever..It was also a big deal for all the swans in Britain as the late monarch was their owner. We’re not just talking about ‘a lamentation of swans’ now, but a whole damn country of them. All lamenting the passing of their owner?

The whole thing about all the swans belonging to the reigning monarch was never a good thing for them. It was legislation that was introduced in the 12th century because swans were the best and tastiest things to eat at banquets, feasts and so on. They were all made property of the Royal Family so that the plebs wouldn’t be able to eat them. Who’s lamenting what now?

Swans are notoriously aggressive so be careful in their presence or it’ll be you who’s lamenting. However, they’re also incredibly graceful creatures and it’s hardly surprising that they should be so important to the world of ballet.

A Parliament of Owls

This one was coined by C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia. Yes, owls do come across as being wise so why not have a parliament of them? They’d probably do a better job than…etc..etc.

But what they do really well is coming across all mysterious. Unlike most other birds they fly silently. They don’t have eyeballs but binocular-like tube eyes so they are constantly staring at whatever is out there. Some make weird hissing sounds which is a lot scarier than the ‘hoot, hoot’ that people normally think of. Best of all, they are essential characters in the greatest TV series ever: David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’. ‘The owls are not what they seem’ is one of the most quotable lines from the series. Instead of a parliament, how about calling a group of them ‘an enigma of owls’?

We could go on and on with the examples of birds and other flying things – ‘an ostentation of peacocks, ‘ a flamboyance of flamingos’ – but within the weirdness, these are not all that surprising. Once you’ve got into this world, ‘a kaleidoscope of butterflies’ seems the most natural thing to say.

A School of Fish

This is another classic that was probably burned into your memory when you watched ‘Finding Nemo’

Etymology is weird and so maybe it’s not so surprising that there’s no real connection between a school (of fish) and a school (of learning). The former comes from Greek via Latin and originally meant  «intermission of work, leisure for learning», so school used to be play and not work. Sort of. The latter comes from Dutch and may be connected to ‘shoal’ – another word for a group of fish.Words like these are called false cognates because they have totally different etymologies. This can also happen between languages; the only thing that English ‘much’ and Spanish ‘mucho’ have in common is what the words mean. The words notoriously known as ‘false friends’ are not quite the same. Spanish speakers (not you, I know it’s never you) often confuse ‘actually’ with ‘actualmente’. In this case the words do have a common origin, but have come to mean different things. ‘A conspiracy of false friends’? No, that’s already been taken by the crows’ bigger cousins, the ravens.

A Mischief of Mice

Or rats. Or drunk lexicographers at the Christmas party.

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