Origins

A Dissing of Deer

Q.
Why do some animals have such beautifully considered collective nouns while others are lumped together under rude, or perhaps worse, indifferent ‘nouns of assembly’?

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A.

It does seem unfair that we celebrate an exaltation of larks, a caravan of camels, pride of lions, streak of tigers, romp of otters, dazzle of zebras. Yet, poor guinea fowls get lumped under a ‘confusion.’ I mean we all have our bad days, but a confusion of guinea fowls?

Though we humans might like the idea of a ‘rhumba’ of rattlesnakes, these tail-rattling, venomful predators seem unlikely to appreciate a fun, dancey group name.

What did beautiful, if garden-munching, deer do to deserve the laziness of the first of their collective nouns. ‘Bunch’. A bunch of deer.  Ouch. And surely a drudge of lexicographers could have come up with something better than ‘a quantity of smelt.’

Collective nouns – or ‘terms of venery’, as they are called in grouping animals – find their root in hunting culture and the 15th Century Book of St. Albans. Dame Juliana Barnes, prioress of the Priory of St Mary of Sopwell, included 164 collective names for ‘beasts and fowls’ in her hawking, hunting and heraldry guide.

Ever so often, animal groups suggest new collectives. In 1995, the Terminology Review Board of the ARF Kennel Club approved grouping names for a long list of dog breeds including ..

• A snoop of bloodhounds
• A jitter of jack russells
• A splatter of dalmations
• A tornado of terriers
• A nicety of newfs
• A snuggle of pugs
• A trumpet of beagles
• A vision of vizslas

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Over the decades, though, certain animals have been burdened with questionable collective nouns. A sampling …

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Collective Trash Talk

• A cowardice of curs
• A bloat of hippopotamuses
• A mess of iguanas
• A scold of jays
• A smack of jellyfish
• A conspiracy of lemurs
• A scourge of mosquitos (hard to feel sympathy here but..)
• An embarrassment of pandas
• A pandemonium of parrots
• An unkindness of ravens
• A crash of rhinoceroses
• An inconvenience of scorpions
• A squabble of seagulls
• A stench of skunks
• A phlegm of slugs
• An escargatoire of snails
• A plump of whales

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Header: Gary Meulemans

Photo 2: Bruce Williamson

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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton