50 Collective Nouns to Bolster Your Vocabulary

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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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January 18, 2013 - 10:10pm
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