Spring is in the air.
Two days ago was the vernal equinox – the first of two days this year in which we have equal amounts of sunlight and darkness. From here, the days keep getting longer until we hit the summer solstice, or the longest day of the year.
The advent of spring makes a lot of people happy. We talk about spring cleaning, spring fever, April showers and May flowers. It’s often a symbol of new life, of new beginnings, and of new spring fashion colors.
But there’s another use of the word spring that has nothing to do with leaping or rising or gushing or darting or beginning.
A long-known oddity of English is its use of different terms for a group of collective nouns, one of the more famous of which being an exaltation of larks. We enjoy these possibly because the noun used for “group” is often so descriptive, even playfully so. Not to mention we often become familiar with more vocabulary than we did before: I never knew that a cony was a type of European rabbit, but now I also know that a group of them is called a bury of conies.
Many of the lists of collective nouns are dominated by birds: the aforementioned exaltation of larks; a band of jays; a watch of nightingales. Here is where we find our other use of the word spring: a spring of teals. A teal is a type of duck that is found in various varieties around the world. Here is a blue-winged (teal-winged?) bird found in North America.
These collective nouns can be a bit obscure at times:
- a rout of knights
- a sord of mallards
- a drift of swine
They can also be playful or satirical:
- a converting of preachers
- a neverthriving of jugglers
- an ostentation of peacocks
- a number of mathematicians
- a conspiracy of ravens
- a ponder of philosophers
And some can be a little mean:
- an ugly of walruses
- a murder of crows
- a gaggle of gossips (or woman – not misogynist at all!)
- an abominable sight of monks
A more exhaustive and quite amusing list of 15th century collective nouns can be found here. In addition, here is another list, created for English language learners, that includes first a long list, and then a very interesting reorganized list by term and reference.
So what’s your favorite? (So far, I’m going with a superfluity of nuns.)
I have lots of favourites and can’t remember a single on at the moment of course. I’ll come back to that when I do. But I have a definite dislike, and it’s an American one. That tendency some Americans have to refer to a number of items as ‘ a bunch of…’. I don’t know why, but it really jars on English ears. I’m sure you have a bunch of ideas about irritating English phrases…..
Yeah, we do say that a lot, don’t we? I don’t mind it for some things, but I don’t like it when people use it on its own. For example, sometimes I’ll hear, ‘I really like X a bunch!” That does annoy me, now that I think about it. But “a bunch of idiots” doesn’t bother me (though I do prefer “a pack of idiots” ;) )
I think the one thing about British English that I could never get used to was using the word “toilet” for the room, not the object – the way we would use the term ‘bathroom’ or ‘restroom’. I really liked the word “loo” for that use, but for me “toilet” was always much too graphic. Because Americans use “toilet” for the actual object, the term “go to the toilet” always conjured up the image of someone on a toilet seat, and that’s just not a good image to have of anyone ;)
Actually, I’m with you on that. I was far too middle class a girl to use the word ‘toilet’, but it’s so universal that I eventually gave up. I was raised on ‘go to the lavatory’ which is a bit of a coy euphemism. Bit like ‘restroom’ really ;)
I am partial to a murder of crows. Deliciously deceptive.
It’s a good one, isn’t it? I also giggle at “an unkindness of ravens.” I don’t know what it is about birds, but there are a LOT of these types of collective terms about birds.
Many collections of such collective nouns have appeared, both in print and on the Internet, the oldest-known one being The Book of St Albans, published in 1486. Somewhere I have read that somebody chose a good number of those nouns.
I love collective nouns; I wish they were used more often in everyday speech :) My favourite (being the owner of pet rats) is ‘a mischief of rats’! :D
Your rats are adorable! I know, most people probably wouldn’t think so, but I used to have mice – a mischief of mice, actually! ;) Awesome term, isn’t it?