Do you remember your collective nouns from schooldays?

Collective nouns are words that often come up in quizzes and crossword puzzles.  Most of us will remember from school having to learn the correct word to describe a group of something such as a Pride of Lions and a Pod of Dolphins.

There are some which are poetic in their description, such as an Exultation of Larks and a Murder of Crows and I have been doing some research into the origin of these nouns.  It is fascinating to trace the source most of which are grounded in mythology and medieval history.

Superstition was a strong force and even today we link certain creatures, particularly birds with omens of death and calamity.  The appearance of crows and ravens are thought to be such portents and have been used by writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Ian Banks as sinister signs.

Witchcraft is closely linked to a lot of these omens and the collective noun for them is coven which when attached to a group, particularly of women, these days still suggests something evil and suspicious.

Many of the nouns used for wild beasts are also from myths and legends as most ordinary people had never seen a lion or a tiger, let alone a hippopotamus or an elephant, so the explorers who encountered these animals had to come up with an appropriate expression.

Fine so elephants are known as a herd, which is fairly standard, but a Bloat of Hippopotami is taken from the fact that their stomach bloats as they feed entirely on grass.  A Crash of Rhinoceros is much more descriptive and a Bask of Crocodiles is self-explanatory.

The collective nouns for people and professions are also a cause for intrigue and historical investigation.  A Rascal of Boys is first found in fifteenth century manuscripts when a rascal meant a mob or rabble, but is still very appropriate.  A Damning of Jurors is based on an entry in the Book of St Albans of 1486 which gives us many of the still used categories.  A Skulk of Thieves is still appropriate; as is the Rage of Maidens.

It is an interesting exercise to invent new collective nouns for current occupations and groups and I should like to share some I have found in my research:  a Balance of Accountants, a Deceit of Politicians, a Dividend of Shareholders, a Cramp of Writers and a Failure of Negotiators

Some we have come up with in the office are: a Giggle of Schoolgirls, a Fidget of Choirboys, a Cliché of Sports Commentators, a Journey of Talent Show Judges and a Truck Stop of Lorry Drivers.

Please do let us have any ideas you may have for new words and any old ones that have particularly delighted you.  There’s another one for you, a Delight of Correspondents!

By Charlotte Courthold