Collective nouns: The tradition of naming

By Ken Eastwood June 26, 2014
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
Join us as we continue the age-old search to name groups of things.

WE ALL HAVE our favourites. A flush of fungi. A bask of crocodiles. A charm of finches. And a superfluity of nuns – well, maybe not that one.

Collective nouns have been circulating in English since at least 1486, when The Book of Saint Albans included a list of 165 collective names. It had a melody of harpers, a sentence of judges and a drunkship of cobblers.

The book about ‘gentlemen’s interests’ became popular, and the terms widely accepted as correct English. Many of these were for groups of animals, and some are still in use today, such as a gaggle of geese. Roly Sussex, Emeritus Professor of Applied Language studies at the University of Queensland, says they were used by those wishing to boost their social status.

“Young squires and knights wanting to learn hunting had to learn a whole range of terms, such as a brace of deer or grouse,” he says. “By and large they’re falling out of use.”

Australian language adapted

Rather than Australians developing their own collective nouns, they just applied conventional terms to the new area and new groups of animals, says Sue Butler, editor of the Macquarie Dictionary.

Dingoes became a pack of wild dogs, and one term that we like to think is Australian, a mob of kangaroos (also applied to sheep and cattle), is used elsewhere in the world for other groups of animals. “A mob is an untidy collection, whereas a pack is much more orderly,” Sue says. “But the way mob is used by indigenous groups for themselves is peculiar to Australia.”

Sue says many traditional collective nouns incorporate a characteristic of the animal’s behaviour, such as a pride of lions or a cloud of gnats. Even an unkindness of ravens was originally related to their supposed habit of turfing chicks out of nests. One that doesn’t seem to fit is a parliament of owls. Owls are usually found singly or in pairs rather than in large groups. Others are just plain bizarre, such as a smack of jellyfish.

Almost a decade ago, Bruce Moore, former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra, went on a search to find widely used and quintessentially Australian examples. He received a swag of suggestions, including the lovely carolling of currawongs, and awarded a prize for the now somewhat dated chatroom of galahs (perhaps a ‘twitter’ is now more apt). Some
were suggested several times over, indicating that they were in favour, but Bruce decided that none were commonly used.

So come on Australia, let’s make a new one stick. Use it widely and often. What about a muddle of wombats?

The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #115.