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Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Super ... oh, umm, never mind.
It’s just a murmuration of starlings! Or maybe it’s an exaltation of larks? It could be a convocation of eagles.
I’m fairly well versed in superherology, but I was never very good at ornithology.
A venue of vultures? A mustering of storks? An ostentation of peacocks? So what’s with all the strange names?
Well, most people know that a group of cattle is called a herd. Or that a family of lions is called a pride. It’s common knowledge that a grouping of geese is called a gaggle and the V-shaped flight grouping is called a skein. Quite a few people even know that a group of whales is called a pod.
Over the years, the evolution of “collective nouns” has been a showcase of verbal portraits heralding mankind’s ability to name everything from rocks to stars. But it actually does make sense that different animals should have different words to describe groupings.
Calling a group of animals a herd is too vague. A herd could be a grouping of bison or antelope or goats, or even commuters at New York City Penn Station. But a cohort refers specifically to a collection of zebras. One would never confuse a cohort of zebras with a stampede of New York commuters. Zebras are far better behaved.
With special words at their disposal, Long Island swimmers don’t have to say “There’s a bunch of jellyfish out there!” Instead, they can say, “There’s a fluther.” A few million jellyfish visiting the warm shores of Long Island can also be called a swarm, a smack, a smuck, a smuth, a bloom and a brood. A few million jellyfish off Long Island? I just call it “a normal day.”
So where do all these names come from?
Well, over the centuries, usually during the more boring periods of history (those rare years between wars), linguists passed the time assigning names to the groupings of various animals. At first, it was done only to distinguish the types of animals in a herd (e.g., a mob of deer, a pace of donkeys, a tribe of goats, a drift of hogs).
After a while though, it seems that inventing new names became a tradition. What other reason could there be for having a parliament of owls, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, a pladge of wasps or a covey of ptarmigans? I have to admit, I have no idea what a ptarmigan is. But if I see 20 or 30 of them together, I’ll know that it’s a covey and I can say so without embarrassing myself. A gaggle of ptarmigans? Pul-leeeze!
Many names were created as poetic constructs, such as a peep of chickens, a bouquet of pheasants or a charm of hummingbirds.
I suppose that if we applied this same poetic license to humans, we would use terms like a caseload of lawyers, a set of mathematicians, a cellar of sommeliers, a pocketful of numismatists, a gig of computer programmers, a handful of proctologists or a mouthful of dentists.
Some of these words are best learned from a distance, such as a bask of crocodiles, a shiver of sharks, an ambush of tigers, a prickle of porcupines, a cackle of hyenas and a stench of skunks.
By now, you’ve noticed that many names for groupings leverage the characteristics of the animal. We have a crash of rhinoceroses, a paddling of ducks, a stand of flamingos and a caravan of camels. One of my favorites is a bloat of hippopotamuses.
As time goes on, names will probably be invented to distinguish even the different breeds of animals. Dogs would lend themselves to this nicely. How about a speckling of dalmatians or a run of greyhounds? We could have a ratpack of Chihuahuas, a bad-hair-day of Pomeranians, a cord of Pulis or a blanket of Afghans.
As more and more differences continue to divide our society into smaller and smaller distinct groups, perhaps we should take a cue from this nomenclative culture and start identifying people in their respective groupings. As Americans, we pride ourselves on accuracy. When we denounce and ridicule others, we should do so without ambiguity.
So we could use terms like a demagogue of Democrats or a rush of Republicans. Or a curtain of communists? A Save-The-Earth rally could be called an ocean of environmentalists. A political discussion group could be a flapping of right and left wings. During the presidential primaries the debates would host an earful of politicians.
And for those ill-defined people who stand alone, our names could take on a whole new meaning. I suppose a group of one of me would be a john of Pawlaks?