Collective nouns

Collective nouns, whether traditional, a pride of lions, or comic, a dose of doctors, have always fascinated me; and not just because they offer all sorts of problems when writing letters, particularly whether to use a singular verb or plural verb (Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s, allows the use of either). There are, apparently, some 200 collective nouns in common use in English and put “collective nouns” into Google and you will get 1,070,000 results.

The world of birds has a wonderful range of collective nouns, although many are rarely used, or indeed known. Is there anything more descriptive than a charm of goldfinches, an exaltation of larks or a murder of crows? When thinking about this piece, I found Terry Ross’ website, Group Names for Birds: A Partial List. He does not think much of a murder of crows (as the noun is not in the Oxford English Dictionary as a group name), but this has not stopped Heinemann publishing a book under this title in its Animal Group series.
What started me thinking about collective nouns was the Starling roost at Whiddon Down. For a week or so in late February, the stand of conifers between the village and the A30 saw one of the largest Starling roosts I have ever seen. As the light went, flocks of starlings (not the right collective noun, but more of this later) flew in towards the roost, meeting and merging, swirling shapes and syncopated patterns filling the sky; and then, in an extraordinary five seconds or so, dropping into the trees, as if sucked down. We stood in the dusk one Saturday tea time and watched the performance for 20 or so minutes, captivated by one of the most extraordinary wildlife spectacles it is possible to see in Britain. How many of these somewhat nondescript birds there were was difficult to guess: certainly tens if not hundreds of thousands. The sky was filled with them, and in the silence we could hear the rush of their wings. At one moment part of the flock detached itself and settled in the hedges behind us. It was then we understood why the collective noun for Starlings is a murmuration (in the OED, murmering, a low, continuous sound).

The children do not share our fascination with birds, and I suppose we are, to use yet another collective noun, an embarrassment of parents.

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