I was looking out at the ocean the other day, watching one of my favorite things, when I heard a voice behind me.
"Nice scoop, eh?"
I turned to see her smiling at both me and the seascape in front of me, not just because she knows how much I love the single-file, follow-the-leader flight pattern of pelicans, but because she's also aware of how much I like the word used to describe a group of them:
A scoop. A scoop of pelicans.
Since making the Carolina coast our part-time home, I've also learned that groups of dolphins and whales are called pods, while shrimps gather in a troupe, sharks swim in a shiver and the term for a bunch of jellyfish is a smack. And just so you don't think everything here is more idyllic than I deserve, I've also gotten hip to the phrase "scourge of mosquitoes," as well.
The way American English has evolved to describe groups of things is an inconsistent combination of clever, inventive, funny and dumb ways to say "a bunch of." Called collective nouns, these words have been the playthings of writers and linguists for centuries, starting in about the 1400's, when upper-crust gents used their own special terms to describe the animals they hunted and saw, just to show how smart and well-educated they were. There are books, articles and entire websites galore dedicated to the lists of collective nouns used to describe everything from a cluster of antelopes to a cohort of zebras, with group descriptors available for just about everything including animals, people, fish, bugs and reptiles. Some of them, like "deck of cards," "den of thieves," "stand of trees" and "school of fish" are well-accepted parts of our language that we all use from time to time, while others, like a "flink of cows" and a "rhumba of rattlesnakes" haven't quite caught on yet.
Interestingly, the words used to describe groups can even refer to their specific condition, too, as with ducks, who fly in a flock, float in a paddling or raft, and sometimes meet their end as a brace, when two more more have a run-in with a hunter and his shotgun.
Ditto geese, who fly in a flock, skein or wedge, but hang out on land as the oft-mentioned gaggle.
"Who makes this stuff up?" she asked after I showed off some of my new-found knowledge I learned on a visit to a website on the subject.
Well, how about me?
I find the whole thing pretty interesting and since I'm probably not as busy as I could or should be, I've decided to try my hand at the name game, too. I mean, really, who says I can't be one of those writers who comes up with those descriptive collective nouns that become a part of our language? Of course, I'm a little late to the dance, I know, as better minds than mine have been toiling at the task for a long, long time. But I'm nothing if not overoptimistic when it comes to my own abilities, so here are a few of my word-creations, just waiting for someone to use them.
A crank of crabs
A galaxy of starfish
A squirt of squid
A stumble of stairs
A cuddle of kittens
A pant of puppies
A shriek of spiders
A treasure of stars
A slither of snakes
A scamper of mice
A scold of squirrels
A lumber of bears
A pest of flies
A clash of neckties
OK, so maybe they won't be holding up the next printing of Webster's Dictionary for my contributions quite yet. And maybe you'd like to join in this effort by sharing your own ideas with me.
We've got kaboodles of time.