What kind of brilliant wordsmith came up with collective nouns? Most people know about a pride of lion, a crash of rhino, a dazzle of zebra – old hat, really.
But did you know about an obstinacy of buffalo? A sneak of weasels? A romp of otters? A shrewdness of monkeys? And my current favourite, an implausibility of wildebeest?
Moving out of Africa, you get a streak of tigers, a huddle of walruses, an aurora of polar bears and a skulk of foxes (which is also the entirely appropriate collective noun for jackals).
The genius is equally applicable to groups of birds. I’d known about an exultation of larks (also a favourite), a murder of crows, a parliament of owls, an ostentation of peacocks and naturally, a gaggle of geese.
But have you heard of a wake of vultures? A gulp of swallows? A murmuration of starlings? A squabble of seagulls? A conspiracy of ravens? A pitying of turtledoves? A paddling of ducks? A plump of moorhens?
They instantly capture the essence of those birds. Similarly, if you’ve never actually seen a group of parrots, you’d instantly guess their nature from the collective noun: a pandemonium of parrots. The same goes for a scoop of pelicans, a tittering of magpies, a charm of hummingbirds or a walk of snipe.
Some are a little puzzling. A cadge of peregrines, for example, and a surfeit of skunks. Or a mutation of thrushes, or a head of curlews, or a kettle of hawks. What do they mean?
Similarly, you have to wonder about a raffle of turkeys or a spring of teal, or the utterly unimaginative herd of swans (alternatives, thankfully, include a lamentation or a whiting of swans).
Have you heard of a wake of vultures? A gulp of swallows? A murmuration of starlings? A squabble of seagulls? A conspiracy of ravens? A pitying of turtledoves? A paddling of ducks? A plump of moorhens?
Others are quite clear if you’re familiar with the birds. A collection of lapwings is called a deceit, for example. I can only imagine it acquired such a collective noun because, like many ground-nesting birds, lapwings will pretend to have broken wings or legs to draw predators away from eggs or chicks.
But a fling of oxpeckers? Maybe they look like darts that have been thrown onto the animals they cling to? Or perhaps it’s their party-animal, having-a-fling nature that caught the collective nouners’ attention.