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Collective Nouns: Why does English have so many?

In our previous post earlier this month, we tackled collective nouns and whether they should be treated as singular or plural. This in turn gave rise to a more interesting question: why does English have so many different collective nouns seemingly almost one for every type of entity we describe and where did they all come from?

One of the most intriguing aspects of the English language (and one of the reasons it can be exceptionally challenging for non-natives to master) is its sheer variety. In few places is this more evident than in the sheer number of collective nouns that have become accepted into the language over the years. Some we are instantly familiar with: a herd of cattle, a flock of birds, a pack of wolves. Others we may stumble across every so often and recognise: a colony of ants, a school of dolphins, perhaps even a murder of crows. And yet more are so whimsical or bizarre that many of us are unaware they even exist; how many usages have you heard of a wisdom of wombats, a hover of trout, or a misbelief of painters?

The vast majority of these appeared in the fifteenth century, particularly those denoting groups of animals. The animal terms known as ‘terms of venery’ or sometimes ‘nouns of assembly’ originated as deliberately developed features of hunting terminology. It is thought that most of the terms were coined largely as a bit of fun but many found their way into common usage and some have even survived to the present day. The astonishingly long (and not even necessarily complete) list can be found here.

The terms of venery were designed exclusively for animals, but a comprehensive list in The Book of St Albans in 1486 went on to include other, in some cases clearly humorous, terms to describe various human professions as well, for example a fighting of beggars and even a disworship of Scots!

One reason English remains such a peculiar language is that there is no-one in charge of how it develops. Some other languages, such as French and German, have committees for such things; English does not. According to the eighteenth-century English grammarian and theologian Joseph Priestley, a keeper of English ‘would be unsuitable to the genius of a free nation’. As a result, almost anything can become a part of our language should it slip into common enough usage.

Our catalogue of these collective nouns is testament to such an approach; an almost unanimous affection for these quirks has seen many of the original terms survive, as well as clever new ones come into usage. More recent examples include the delightful bloat of hippopotamuses and the still experimental groove of DJs. In our office we proposed a few new possibilities, including a scribble of writers and, perhaps even more perceptively, a quibble of proofreaders!

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