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A Sentence of Words

The English language has one of the most varied and flexible vocabularies, with umpteen words to describe, categorise and explain, and perhaps some its most rich examples are collective nouns. Some of the oldest and most notable examples appear in The Book of St. Albans, 1486, in the ‘hunting’ section of the book, written by probably the wife of the holder of the manor of Julians Barnes near St Albans . However, despite the age of some of these examples they are not all accepted into the Oxford English Dictionary, this is not to say that they’re not recognised or not pertinent, it just means there isn’t enough evidence in the corpus data for them to be cited in the OED itself as actual collective nouns. Many of these examples are purely poetic and are often associated with folklore or myths about the nouns themselves. For example:

A murder of crows: Crows being birds mean that their actual collective nouns is a flock, however, they are commonly grouped as a ‘murder’. The origins of this poetic example are cited in many different cultural folklore, including some English folklore that suggest crows are a symbol of death, perhaps because they are carrion feeders and perhaps because of their colour. It is also believed that crows form tribunals to judge and punish the bad behavior of a member of the flock. If the verdict goes against the defendant, that bird is killed (murdered) by the flock. The basis in fact is probably that occasionally crows will kill a dying crow who doesn’t belong in their territory or much more commonly feed on carcasses of dead crows. Also, both crows and ravens are associated with battlefields, medieval hospitals, execution sites and cemeteries (because they scavenged on human remains). In England, a tombstone is sometimes called a ravenstone.

A murmuration of starlings: While this sounds fancy and poetic there is perhaps more truth to this one. The murmuration refers to the noise of the thousands of wings fluttering when the clouds of starlings swoop through the air. They are, however, still collectively known as a flock.

It is very difficult to find the origins of most collective nouns, possibly because they are purely poetic and refer to the character or behaviour of the thing being grouped, but this is perhaps what makes them so diverse and colourful and completely endless. For more definitions James Lipton has written a book An Exaltation of Larks which may satisfy a more curious mind. However here are some undefined, interesting and recent examples:

  • A schmooze of salesmen
  • A giggle of tweens
  • A fail of LOL cats
  • A menace of cyclists
  • A vein of vampires
  • A nag of wives
  • A litigation/ an eloquence of lawyers
  • A bench of judges
  • A parliament of owls
  • A blush of boys
  • A superfluity of nuns
  • A rope of onions
  • A cache of jewels

Below are some interesting articles and sources, used for this blog:

http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/08/collective-nouns/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/new-words-for-modern-phenomena-a-collaboration-of-collective-nouns-453359.html

http://www.wordsyoudontknow.com/10-collective-nouns-that-you-dont-know/

http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/collnoun.htm

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