There’s pleasures, guilty pleasures, and then pleasures you don’t even realise are pleasures. Collective nouns fall under the latter. This week, Susie Dent finds ten of the best.
On the face of it, ‘collective noun’ isn’t exactly a term to get your pulse racing. And yet we are somehow all fascinated by the names chosen for groups of people and animals, and what they tell us. An ‘odium of politicians’ is as pithy a reflection of public opinion as you could hope to find. And yet most of the collective nouns that we know and love today were born in the Middle Ages, drawn up in books of etiquette that aimed to instruct the nobility on how not to embarrass themselves while out hunting, hawking, or fishing. For any self-respecting nobleman, knowing that the correct term for a group of ferrets was a ‘busyness’, for hares a ‘flick’, and for hounds a ‘mute’, was a necessity.
The Book of St. Albans, our primary source for these terms, was a medieval best-seller. Containing the very first images to be printed in colour, it contained a list of over 160 group names for beasts of the chase and characters on the medieval stage.
And we still love them today, more than half a millennium on.
a misbelief of painters
When Oliver Cromwell instructed the portrait artist Peter Lely to paint him with ‘roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me’ (thereby inspiring the phrase ‘warts and all’), he was flying in the face of the tradition of the time to flatter and polish the subject. The painter’s job was to create the illusion of beauty or perfection when there was none, which goes a long way towards explaining the collective noun for artists, a ‘misbelief’.
a superfluity of nuns
At the time of this curious collective’s invention, in the 15th century, convents were packed to the gills with noblewomen who had passed the marriageable age and faced spinning for a living (as a literal ‘spinster’) if they didn’t enter religious service.
an unkindness of ravens
These big and ominously dark birds were thought to be omens of doom and portents of death. This also explains ‘a murder of crows’, birds that were thought to loiter near hospitals and battlefields to pick over the dead.
a sloth of bears
There is something comforting and cuddly about a sloth of bears, especially when it could so easily have been a ‘blob’ of them, given that bear cubs were thought to be born as lumps that needed to be licked into shape by their mothers (which is why we still ‘lick something into shape’ to this day).
a drunkship of cobblers
Ale was once considered to be far safer than water, which might explain why tipsy tradespeople were a common sight on medieval streets. Cobblers were at the lower end of the pecking order, and so perhaps were expected to be fonder of tippling than most.
an impertinence of pedlars
This dismissive collective noun makes perfect sense when you consider that ‘pedlars’ were the ancestors of door-to-door salesmen.
an abomination of monks
There are no holds barred with this choice, which was clearly coined to make mockery of those who took religious orders but who were in reality the party animals of the Middle Ages.
a charm of goldfinches
Goldfinches were once members of a ‘chirm’ rather than a ‘charm’, used for a ‘hum’ or collective chirruping of schoolchildren or insects since the 1400s. The bird’s liquid twittering song must have made ‘chirm’ equally suitable, before ‘charm’ understandably took over four centuries later.
a foothurt of Lego
There is no authority that decides on the correct collective noun for anything, which means that there is endless potential for new inventions. ‘A foothurt of Lego’ is a clever recent coinage, along with a ‘blur of opticians’ and a ‘spoilbroth’ of TV chefs.