Our Favorite Examples of Collective Nouns In English

Have you ever wondered why fish swim in schools, stairs are measured in flights or worms come in cans? As with so many things in life, the French are to blame.
A culture of bacteria, a murder of crows, a mess of iguanas, a smack of jellyfish, a mob of kangaroos, an illusion of magicians, a troop of mushrooms, a parliament of owls,

We’re all familiar with the odd characteristics of the English language. Words that look the same but don’t sound the same (like cough and through). Or those wacky silent letters like in knife and benign. And there is that fun quirk of the English language known as collective nouns. Have you ever wondered why fish swim in schools, stairs are measured in flights or worms come in cans? As with so many things in life, the French are to blame.

English, Why Are You Like This?

Let’s back up a little. If languages were carpets, English would be a vast, cobbled-together patchwork. You would see Norse patterns, Saxon motifs, and, running through everything, the delicate threads of Anglo-Norman — a dialect of Old French.

In the centuries that followed the Norman invasion of 1066, the ruling class of England was French. The conquerors brought their culture, their customs and their language. This is why we English speakers have different words for living animals and their culinary equivalents. The aristocrats during that time hardly knew what cows, pigs and sheep were, but were well acquainted with boeuf, porc and mouton. Animals rarely featured in the daily lives of the well-to-do, except when it came to hunting.

“Nay, nay, lad, it is indeed sad to see how little you know… No man of gentle birth would speak of a herd of swine; that is the peasant speech. If you hunt them, it is other.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Nigel: A Novel of the Hundred Years’ War

Terms Of Venery

Courtly hunting in France and England was all the rage in the 14th and 15th centuries, with its own specialized vocabulary known as “terms of venery” (venery is an archaic word for hunting). A brave gentleman might hunt a pride of lions while a slightly less brave one might target a confusion of guinea fowl. A lady could come across a murmuration of starlings or a bellow of bullfinches on her morning ride.

Terms of venery were the linguistic equivalent of silly hats: colorful, affected, fashionable, and very popular. And like most jargon, they were ripe for parody.

Enter The Book of Saint Albans in 1486. Among its compaynys of beestys and fowlys, keen-eyed observers noticed several new species: a Fightyng of beggars, a Gagle of women, a Sentence of Juges and an uncredibilite of Cocoldis (an incredulity of cuckolds — wouldn’t you be disbelieving if your better half were cheating on you?).

And so the language of courtly hunting brought to England by the French upper class gave birth to the extraordinary range of collective nouns that we know and love today. Some of the originals, chiefly those concerned with animals such as a murder of crows or a litter of puppies, are still in popular use. But the genre has expanded far beyond birds and beasts: think of a den of thieves, a flight of stairs, or a comedy of errors.

Modern Uses

The definitive modern collection of terms of venery, An Exaltation of Larks, was written by none other than James Lipton, better known as the host of Inside the Actors Studio. He not only analyzes the classics but suggests a few new ones, like a deal of agents or a book of Mormons.

The spirit of Lipton’s book is a good one: collective nouns (or terms of venery — let’s not get bogged down in the details, as a babble of linguists might do) are an art rather than a science. A prime example is a parliament of owls, created by CS Lewis in his Narnia series in the 1950s but now generally accepted in popular use.

You can be as playful as you like when it comes to making up terms of venery. Modern efforts such as a flush of plumbers or an exaggeration of fishermen are well worthy of the genre. And we couldn’t forget to mention a sneer of butlers or a shuffle of bureaucrats.

There are many more that aren’t in popular usage, which, frankly, should be. An intrusion of cockroaches anyone? How about an illusion of magicians, an annoyance of neighbors, or a brace of dentists? Word lovers, go forth. This unique little pocket of the English language deserves to be celebrated. Here are some more examples of collective nouns to add to your vocabulary:

  • a troubling of goldfish
  • a party of rainbow fish
  • a shiver of sharks
  • a rhumba of rattlesnakes
  • a charm of goldfinches
  • an unkindness of ravens
  • an ostentation of peacocks
  • a huddle of penguins
  • a journey of giraffes
  • a bloat of hippopotami
  • an ambush of tigers
  • a sneak of weasels
  • a scoop of journalists
  • a pity of prisoners
  • a disguising of tailors
  • a prudence of vicars
  • an eloquence of lawyers
  • a superfluity of nuns
  • an audit of bookkeepers
  • a stack of librarians
  • a number of mathematicians
  • a clique of photographers
  • a following of stalkers
  • a fleet of lorries
  • a cancellation of trains
  • an unease of compromises
  • a nest of rumors
  • a galaxy of stars
  • a flight of yesterdays
  • a twinkling of todays
  • a promise of tomorrows
  • a flight of dragons
Take the collective nouns quiz

Do you have all of these terms of venery committed to memory now? Great, then you’re ready for the collective nouns quiz!

Illustrations by James Chapman

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