A gaggle of geese and an exaltation of larks are in the dictionary. So why not a murder of crows or a shrewdness of apes – or even a wunch of bankers?
In a warehouse near you, a shipment of Apple tablets arrives from China. “Get the trolleys,” wails the foreman. “This rectangulation of iPad 2s won’t shift itself!” The choice of collective noun might seem arbitrary and simplistic (and would have garnered sniggers from the shop floor), but on the internet the search for an iPad collective noun is under way: “smug”, “tampon” and “gloat” are the early leaders at online collective noun emporium all-sorts.org – alas, rectangulation hasn’t made the list.
In fact, very few collective nouns make it into the dictionary, even after centuries of use. Omitted terms such as “murder” of crows and “parliament” of rooks date from The Book of St Albans, a 15th-century assortment of essays on hunting, hawking, fishing and heraldry. The hunting section, written by St Albans prioress Dame Juliana Barnes, creaks under the weight of group singulars, some of which have been in use since medieval times. “Gaggle” of geese and “exaltation” of larks were later accepted by the dictionary; “peep” of chickens and “clattering” of choughs were not.“Collective nouns are treated no differently from any other word,” explains Catherine Soanes, head of online dictionaries at Oxford University Press. “We would need evidence of genuine use in our databases before we would consider adding them to one of our dictionaries. This is why there aren’t dictionary entries for the majority of the nouns, like a murder of crows. There’s no genuine evidence of use. They are just linguistic curiosities.”
With 2 billion words in the Oxford English Corpus database, and initialisms such as LOL, OMG and IMHO (in my humble opinion) recently welcomed by the OED, surely there can be room for a “business” of ferrets or an “unkindness” of ravens. But apparently not. The humorous nature of collective nouns means they are perpetually overlooked for inclusion – although a spokeswoman at Oxford Dictionaries pointed out that a “shrewdness of apes” was her personal favourite.
“Dictionaries avoid including these sorts of collective nouns because they are mostly fanciful,” says researcher of language Michael Quinion at World Wide Words. “If your task is to find a new collective that is memorable and witty – so that people will use it seriously and not as a frivolous reference – there needs to be not just a dozen references this week, or even this year, but a significant number over a period of at least several years from a range of publications. Only then will dictionary editors consider it has become a fixed part of the language. Frankly, you’ve got a linguistic mountain to climb.”
The chance of collective nouns gaining entry to the dictionary remains, for most, a pipedream. Like Kurds, collective nouns are displaced and marginalised, existing but with no home. Yet, despite the prejudice, collective nouns are born entertainers in a manner that would turn your average split infinitive green. In the top 25 collective nouns list at all-sorts.org, you’ll find “wunch” of bankers, “deutschbag” of Nazis and “arse-fuck-cunt” of Tourette’s sufferers. So if you worship your iPad like a deity, enter the fray and bestow the iPad 2 with its own collective noun – then your march on Oxford Dictionaries can follow. But beware: you may have a thousand-year wait. As for the 80s new wave collective noun ensemble A Flock Of Seagulls, were they aware that “A Squabble” might have proved a more evocative statement?
The contributor is a writer-subeditor at GQ, and very much available for freelance work.