We know that a noun is used to identify a person, a location, or a thing. As an example, the noun “skunk” describes an American mammal known for spraying its enemies with a horrific smelling liquid.


If we were to have the misfortune of coming across five skunks, we might use the term “bunch” or “group” to describe the sight of several skunks standing together.


However, instead of the words “bunch” or “group,” the correct phrase to use would be “a stench of skunks.” The word “stench” is a collective noun for skunks.


So, what is a collective noun? Collective nouns are specific words used to describe a group of individuals. In other words, they are the nouns used to identify and name a group.


The tragedy of collective nouns is that they are little known and seldom used in the modern English language. In fact, some of the most interesting collective nouns do not see the light of day at all. However, there are the lucky few that have come into popular use, such as:


  • A company of soldiers
  • A herd of zebras
  • A flock of sheep


The usage of collective nouns


Using collective nouns can be fun and can even make other people laugh. The amount of collective nouns continues to increase, and it may even be possible to invent your own.


It would be wonderful to hear the less well known collective nouns more frequently. The loss of collective nouns in the English language has created an overuse of words such as “bunch” and “group.” For instance, it would not be unusual for native English speakers to refer to a collection of crows as:


  • A flock of crows
  • Some crows
  • A group of crows


However, the collective noun for crows is far more interesting, but also slightly ominous:


  • A murder of crows


This leads us to wonder why we do not hear collective nouns used more often. What is the history of these obscure nouns for groups? Why do they sometimes have such cynical and often offensive uses (as we’ll see below) and do they really have a place in the modern English language?


In recent years, intrepid internet users have created lists of collective nouns to describe many modern joys and irritants. Some of the more amusing examples of these are:


  • A luck of dice
  • A smug of mac users
  • A following of stalkers


And one of my own favourites is a collective noun for speed cameras:


  • A tyranny of speed cameras


I can definitely attest to the fact that there are many English drivers who would agree that “tyranny” is a very apt collective noun for speed cameras.


So, if you want your English to stand out, and be of interest to others, I would recommend spending some time studying lists of verified collective nouns. As we will see, there are a lot of collective nouns that are interesting, funny and just waiting to be discovered.


The origin of collective nouns


Most sources tend to agree that collective nouns came into use about five hundred years ago. Their purpose was to help English gentlemen avoid appearing foolish by helping them to use the correct terms when amongst company.


The use of collective nouns increased considerably with the publication of a book called The Book of Saint Albans in 1486.


This book was a collection of essays and described typical pastimes of gentlemen of the time, such as hunting. The author is widely believed to be Juliana Berners: a nun and author who wrote about such topics as hunting and heraldry.


The meaning of collective nouns


Though seldom heard, the expression “a murder of crows” includes a collective noun believed to be descriptive of crows’ behaviour. The use of “murder” as a collective noun refers to the superstitious belief that a group of crows would pass judgement on a single crow, and then proceed to murder it. The term is also linked to the fact that crows have been known to eat the dead, particularly on battlefields.


Many people also believe that the sight of a crow is a bad omen. People also hold the same belief about magpies in England. If a superstitious person were to see a lone magpie, they would believe that sorrow would soon visit them. You might have heard of a children’s nursery rhyme that associates luck with the number of magpies you have encountered. Just as an example, the first four lines of the rhyme are included below:


One for sorrow,

two for joy,

three for a girl,

four for a boy


Another interesting example is the collective noun for apes:


  • A shrewdness of apes


In modern English, the word “shrewd” is normally used to refer to either someone who is particularly astute or to a situation in which a wise decision is made (such as “a shrewd investment”).


However, in old English, the word “shrewd” meant mischievous. Thus, the collective noun “shrewdness” came to be used in archaic English to describe a group of apes whose behaviour was deemed to be both naughty and mischievous.


As time has passed, the origin of modern English collective nouns has become clearer. There is something rather cynical about them though, as you can see in the following example:


  • A quarrel of lawyers


In recent times, collective nouns have become more scathing and occasionally very offensive. “A wunch of bankers” is a spoonerism allegedly invented somewhere between 1979 and 1992. There is also a cruel and dark side to collective nouns in regards to people’s illnesses.


Do collective nouns have a place in modern English?


As discussed, many collective nouns seem cynical, dismissive, and even disturbing. Therefore, we need to consider if it is actually wise to study and use them in our language.


What I would suggest is to look at the earliest examples of collective nouns. They are beautiful, interesting and less offensive than their modern rivals. For example, consider the following collective nouns:


  • A culture of bacteria
  • A pratfall of clowns
  • A coterie of orchids


There are also some modern suggestions that are not cynical or offensive and that are genuinely touching and funny:


  • A squint of proofreaders
  • A crash of software


Although collective nouns are not taken seriously, and seldom appear in dictionaries, they will add energy and interest to your vocabulary.


Perhaps one day you will even invent your own collective nouns that will pass into popular English usage. To conclude, I will leave you with two I invented this afternoon:


  • A bubblegum of K-pop singers
  • A threatening of yakuza


Please feel free to post your own in the comments section of this article.


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Hero Image by Yoni Lerner (CC BY 2.0)