Michael Lyons
Michael Lyons

50 Collective Nouns to Bolster Your Vocabulary

Michael Lyons
Michael Lyons

Collective nouns may seem like quirky ways to describe groups, but 500 years ago, they were your ticket to the in-crowd. Most collective nouns, or “terms of venery,” were coined during the 15th century. Many were codified in books of courtesy, like the 1486 classic Book of St. Albans. St. Albans was a handbook for medieval gentlemen, and it contained essays on hawking, hunting, and heraldry. Appended to the hunting chapter sits a list of 164 collective nouns, titled “The Compaynys of Beestys and Fowlys.” (Contrary to the title, many terms actually describe people—a biting example of ye olde satire.)

As silly as some sound today, the phrases were formal and proper descriptions. St. Albans was, after all, a vocabulary-booster, a primer designed to help gentlemen-in-training avoid the embarrassment of “some blunder at the table.” Over the next century, the book’s popularity bloomed. Similar courtesy handbooks caught on, and by the end of the 16th century, a slew of collective nouns had entered the lexicon.

Some have achieved widespread currency and acceptance, like a “flight of stairs,” “a board of trustees,” and a “school of fish.” Others, like a “murder of crows,” barely cling on. However, a handful of obscure phrases have made a comeback, thanks to James Lipton’s wonderful compendium of collective nouns, An Exaltation of Larks. Here are a few from Lipton’s book that you should add to your repertoire.

1. Business of Ferrets

2. Labor of Moles

3. Mustering of Storks

4. Shrewdness of Apes

5. Gam of Whales

6. Smack of Jellyfish

7. Host of Angels

8. Fusillade of Bullets

9. Baptism of Fire

10. Quiver of Arrows

11. Tissue of lies

12. Murder of Crows

13. Unkindness of Ravens

14. Dule of Doves

15. Clowder, Cluster, or Clutter of Cats

16. Kindle of Kittens

17. Mute of Hounds

18. Pass of Asses

19. Ostentation of Peacocks

20. Team of Ducks (when flying)

21. Paddling of Ducks (when on water)

22. Trip of Goats

23. Sloth, or Sleuth, of Bears

24. Charm of Finches

25. Hill of Beans

26. String of Ponies

27. Hand of Bananas

28. College of Cardinals

29. Shock of Corn

30. Band of Men

31. Knot of Toads

32. Wedge of Swans (when flying)

33. Parliament of Owls

34. Superfluity of Nuns

35. Abominable Sight of Monks

36. Untruth of Summoners

37. Doctrine of Doctors

38. Damning of Jurors

39. Sentence of Judges

40. Rascal of Boys

41. Gaggle of Women

42. Gaggle of Gossips

43. Impatience of Wives

44. Tabernacle of Bakers

45. Poverty of Pipers

46. Fighting of Beggars

47. Neverthriving of Jugglers

48. Herd of Harlots

49. Worship of Writers

50. Hastiness of Cooks

According to Lipton, the terms above “are authentic and authoritative. They were used, they were correct, and they are useful, correct—and available—today.” You can pick up a copy of Lipton's book here.

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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Dollar Words: The Logophile Game That Has Math Geeks Hooked, Too
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Besides anagrams and palindromes, if there’s one thing wordplay aficionados like to mess around with, it’s the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet. Assigning numbers to letters—A = 1, B =2, C = 3, and so on, all the way through to Z = 26—opens the alphabet up to all kinds of mathematical and numerical games and trivia.

So add the value of ARM (32) to the value of BEND (25) and you get the value of ELBOW (57). Likewise, WHITE (65) plus HOUSE (68) equals GOVERNMENT (133). HAIR (8, 1, 9, 18) is a palindrome in this A to Z number system, as is INSULINS (9, 14, 19, 21, 12, 9, 14, 19). Add up the neighboring letter pairs in CAN (3 + 1, 1 + 14), and you’ll get DO (4, 15). The letters in FOURTEEN DOZEN add up to 14 dozen (168).

One more game that can be played with the numerical values of the alphabet is to search for words that total a specific value—the holy grail of which is precisely 100. Words that total 100 in this A to Z way are affectionately known as “dollar words.” They’re actually not all that rare in English, and a full list of them includes some fairly familiar words:

ANNUALLY BOUNDARY CULTURE DRIZZLE

MITTENS MOODIEST NASTILY OUTSET

PAYPHONE PORTLAND PREVENT PRIMARY

PRINTER SESSION SOURCES STRESS

STYLES SWIMMER TATTOOED THIRTY

TOILETS TURKEY UNDRESS USELESS

WHENEVER WHISKING WHISTLES WEDNESDAY

But given a set total in mind, that raises a couple of questions: What are the shortest and the longest dollar words in the dictionary?

Because 100 is a relatively large total for a short word (and because a lot of the highest value letters at the tail end of the alphabet are hard to find homes for, like V, X, and Z) shorter dollar words are fairly hard to come by. As a result, only a handful of 5-letter dollar words have ever been discovered, including:

BUZZY NUTTY PUSSY

In fact, as proof of just how many seldom-used letters lie at the end of the alphabet, if you were to change the numbers around so that A = 26, B =25, and so on through to Z = 1, the number of five-letter dollar words increases enormously:

ABBEY ACRID BACON BASAL

BEFOG BEGET CATCH CHAIN

CHALK CHINA DODGE ELIDE

FACET HENCE IMAGE LAGAN

LANCE MAGMA MEDAL NAKED

But shortest of all are two 4-letter words: acca, an Australian slang word for an academic, and caca, a childish word for poop.

Oppositely, it can be just as difficult looking for as long a dollar word as possible; the more letters a word has, the higher its total grows. But the relatively high frequency of the letters in the first few places of the alphabet means that there are quite a few lengthy dollar words, including some with as many as 12 letters:

BACKTRACKING COMMANDEERED

DEBAUCHERIES DESEGREGATED

INAPPLICABLE NON-BREAKABLE

Apparently longest of all is the 13-letter word adiabatically, a term from meteorology and thermodynamics referring to any process that occurs without a loss or gain of heat.

But why stop at adding up? Multiplying the numerical values of words leads to some considerably larger numbers—and some considerably higher targets.

Multiply the letters of the word TYPEY together, for instance, and you’ll end up with 1,000,000 (= 20 × 25 × 16 × 5 × 25). TEETHY multiplies to 2,000,000 (= 20 × 5 × 5 × 20 × 8 × 25). And PEYOTE multiplies to 3,000,000 (= 16 × 5 × 25 × 15 × 20 × 5). No word has yet been found that totals precisely 4,000,000 or 5,000,000, but some—like LURING (4,000,752) and JUICING (5,000,940)—have come tantalizingly close.

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