The first time I saw lions in the wild, there’s a good chance I did not say, “Oh, look — a pride of lions.” It’s more likely that I said something like, “Holy *&%!”
As we know, though, the correct term for a bunch of lions is a pride, just as a group of witches is a coven. A gathering of cattle is a herd, several servants comprise a staff, and, as you can’t possibly have known before now, a group of hippos is called a bloat. Seriously.
These names for particular groups are called collective nouns, or sometimes “nouns of assemblage”. Some are so common we don’t have to stop to think about the correct term. For instance, what’s a group of birds? Of course — a flock. But it starts to get trickier when designating a specific type of bird.
Let’s see… multiple geese are a gaggle when they’re on land, but a skein when in flight. The collective noun for parrots is a company, and for pheasants it’s a bouquet. I like the term “a parliament of owls”, and “an exaltation of larks” has a nice ring to it. On the other hand, a group of crows is ominously called a murder.
Many of these nouns of assemblage are so fanciful that they seem to have been made up one evening by a group of comedy writers, who should perhaps be collectively referred to as a liquor. It turns out, however, that these collective nouns have been in use since the Middle Ages. That is particularly true of the words — called terms of venery — applied to groups of animals.
The tradition seems to have begun as a sort of hunters’ jargon among English gentlemen. Perhaps to impress their fellow aristocrats with their specialized knowledge, the hunter/linguists kept adding more of these collective nouns. By 1486, the Book of St. Albans, which focused on hunting and heraldry, included 165 such terms.
They have been analyzed and catalogued down through the centuries; I got the ones that follow from respectable sources like the San Diego Zoo and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wildlife Research Center. Here are a few of my favorites:
A Group of… Is Known as
alligators a congregation
cats a pounce
cockroaches an intrusion
cormorants a gulp
eagles a convocation
gnats a cloud
hyenas a cackle
monkeys a barrel
squirrels a scurry
woodpeckers a descent
As I was busy compiling this list of collective nouns, this thought leaped to mind: “What is the collective noun for collective nouns?” Then it hit me: “Oh, right — a list.”