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Flight Lines: Funny and unused, archaic collective nouns

A photo depicting a highness of royal terns, mixing with a conspiracy of black skimmers, and a tiny screech of gulls. Keith Corliss

A collective noun, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is a word that "denotes a collection of persons or things regarded as a unit." Whether we are aware or not, the words are quite common and we tend to use them daily. Give it a little thought and the list of words describing groups of persons is amazingly long. Here's a short, off-the-cuff stab at examples: Army, band, congregation, constituency, audience, committee, class, kin, company, platoon, staff, gang, and team. Come to think of it, this has all the makings of an interesting parlor game.

These words, of course, simplify the language by avoiding lengthy descriptions of groups, thus saving us time. They can also become rather specific when referring to subsets of people, again a time-saver.

Apart from describing various sets of people we tend to similarly label groups of animals, or "things" from the definition above. It's here the words start to stray from everyday modern usage. A herd of bison, a swarm of bees, a school of fish, a flock of sheep, and a pack of wolves; all find themselves in good standing among today's speakers. I would even go so far as to bet most of us have heard the phrases "troop" of monkeys (thanks to Jane Goodall), "pod" of whales, or "pit" of vipers. However, if we take a step farther into the arcane world of collective animal nouns things get downright strange.

Most of the collective nouns describing sets of animals tend to derive from Middle English, that period of time after the Norman Conquest when Anglo-Saxon languages still influenced speech, but standardization was nearly unheard of. Only the clergy and aristocratic classes could read. The printing press wasn't introduced into England until 1470 and so spoken languages tended to vary from one valley to the next.

Apparently the tradition of hunting wild animals among our aristocratic ancestors tended to produce the group words used to describe their quarry. It gave them a tool to set themselves apart from the common citizens and became part of educating their young men. A woman named Dame Juliana Barnes published a piece of work called "Book of St. Albans" in 1486. In it is an essay on the hunting tradition. Supposedly the collective words she coined were chosen for their poetic or humorous images derived from nothing more than her imagination.

It must be mentioned that linguists refer to specific subsets of collective animal nouns as "terms of venery," which means nothing more than the specific word denoting a group of one particular type of animal.

Out of that earlier time come such bizarre collective nouns (or terms of venery) as "bask" of alligators, "cauldron" of bats, "business" of ferrets, and a "scurry" of squirrels, which seems rather fitting actually.

Then there are the birds. The words "covey" and "flock" are readily used in today's language. But it seems nearly every species was given a collective word few of us learned much less use. Among the list of esoteric terms come such beauties as "wisdom" of owls (another apt one), "walk" of snipes, "tidings" of magpies, "siege" of herons, "murder" of crows, "charm" of hummingbirds, and "chain" of bobolinks.

There are even subsets of subsets to describe whether particular birds are flying or not. A "flock" or "gaggle" denotes geese on the ground, but "skein" refers to the birds in the air. Likewise pheasants on the ground can be called a "covey" or even a "nide." But once flushed the group is labeled a "bouquet," a term I doubt we'll see any time soon in the state game proclamations.

Through the "enlightened" vision of us 21st century dwellers, it's easy to chuckle at these terms. Yet they do exist however archaically. But given the fanciful nature of the words' origins, might it not be fun to create and update a few? Just to give folks in the next century something to ponder, how about "verizon" of vireos, "gonzo" of godwits, or even "waldo" of warblers?