2 October 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Collective genius

You have to marvel at how apt collective nouns often are. Never mind flock, herd or pack. There are dozens of exquisite descriptions that are far better. The mystery is, who came up with them?

A dazzle of zebra. Photo Chris Marais

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.


										An implausibility of wildebeest. Photo Chris Marais

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?


										More than one would be a skulk of jackals. Photo Chris Marais

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.

Category: Wildlife

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