A friend of mine asked me the other day if I knew what the collective noun for wombats is. A lot, I answered.
No, he said, thinking he’d scored one over me. It’s a WISDOM of wombats. Bollocks, I impolitely replied. This whole collective noun business is a giant leg-pull.
I mean, who says a group of owls is called a parliament, or ditto of crows a murder, or of larks an exaltation, or of bats a cauldron? Or that foxes come in skulks, finches in charms and bears in a sloth or a sleuth?
Have you ever in your entire life, upon witnessing three or more owls gathered together, felt moved to exclaim: Oh look at all those owls! I reckon there must be a whole parliament of them!
And have you ever heard David Attenborough ever say anything along the lines of “I’m standing here in the middle of this bloat of hippopotamuses, or this crash of rhinoceroses, and it’s absolutely marvellous!”
More than one unicorn is supposedly a blessing. A blessing, for Heaven’s sake! Who do they think they’re kidding? And who the hell are THEY anyway?
I want to know what sniggering prankster started it. Whoever they are, they’ve overplayed their hand by asking us to swallow a flink of cows when we already had the perfectly serviceable herd.
In fact, the only times people actually use these terms is at quiz nights. There you might be asked what is the collective noun for a group of ravens. It’s an unkindness, but at least there’s only that one word for these maligned birds. If you were asked the same question about cats, the room would erupt in arguments because there are so many to choose from. There’s a clowder, a clutter, a pounce, a dout, a nuisance, a glorying, or a glare.
I say this whole business (allegedly one of the collective nouns for ferrets, the other being fesnying) should have stopped with prides of lions and gaggles of geese, the only such terms acknowledged in standard dictionaries.
I actually looked up every dictionary I could get my hands on to see whether any of them recorded those alleged other meanings for shrewdness, parliament, murder, blessing, exaltation, business, unkindness, cauldron, congregation, crash, skulk, charm or sloth or sleuth.
Not a single one of them checked out, dear reader. I began to smell a rat. A whole ravening of rats, in fact. I wondered whether there might not be a conspiracy, not of lemurs (yes, that’s their alleged collective noun), but of quiz show hosts when they’re running out of sensible facts.
So I googled, and it turns out most of these terms go back to a mediaeval abbess who was fond of hunting and who made up a whole lot of collectives for sundry animals and put them in a kind of guidebook for hunters published in 1486. Her idea was to match the collective noun with the animal’s characteristics, which I suppose accounts for exaltations, unkindnesses, parliaments, murders, skulks, charms and cauldrons of larks, ravens, owls, crows, foxes, finches and bats respectively.
But that still leaves us with the shrewdness of apes, the obstinacy of buffaloes and the embarrassment of pandas. They wouldn’t even have heard of those animals in Europe in 1486! Okay, apes might be shrewd and buffaloes might be obstinate, but what’s so embarrassing about pandas?
That would have to be the silliest collective noun I’ve ever heard. I bet nobody, anywhere, has ever used that one, even at quiz nights. The only thing you can have an embarrassment of is riches. Which makes sense when you think about it.
So, mindful that hunting animals is out these days, I decided that the canon of collective nouns needed updating and that I should have a crack at it myself. I stuck to the idea that collective nouns should reflect something about their subject, and that they sound better with alliteration.
I congratulated myself on a litigation of lawyers, patted myself on the back over a tantrum of toddlers and chuckled at my own wit over a quagmire of Qantas bookings. I recruited my friend who tried it on with the wisdom of wombats and he came up with a purloin of pickpockets and a placard of protestors.
At that point we decided that having a collective noun frenzy was thirsty work, and that we should head for the nearest pub. Or just possibly, a whole crawl of pubs.