We’ve all heard of a “murder of crows,” which to be honest, is pretty remarkable.
Some nouns in the English language, I’m relieved to say, make logical sense in referring to a group or collection of animals. Phrases like a pack of wolves, or a herd of bison, or a school of fish all use terminology that, even outside of the context of any specific species, refer plainly to groupings of items or individuals. You could even use these phrases more broadly and still be deemed, largely, grammatically on point. Gesturing to a group of rhinos and remarking “Oh look, a herd of rhinos” isn’t going to raise eyebrows.
Unless your peers are the type to interject and shout “Actually a group of rhinos is called a crash!” Those people are odd.
But in reality…who’s to say what’s actually correct? A vast majority of collective animal nouns are illogical, almost to a fault. In the eclectic, winding world of the English language, where do we draw a line between what knowledge is standard and what is so off-beat that it’s considered almost improper to use proper terminology?
Like I said at the top of this post, the term “murder of crows” is pretty common in our lexicon, but not for any good reason. It’s just as nonsensical as a crash of rhinos, or a rafter of turkeys, or a parliament of owls, but some of these phrases find themselves more broadly accepted than others. I’m confounded.
So in short, this article is going to explore collective nouns in a few key areas: where they come from, why that matters, and how we can cope with this infuriating language system and not all go collectively insane.
Let’s look to the Oxford English Dictionary for the first non-answer:
“Who decides on the right collective noun for something? The short answer is no one.”
It’s quite fascinating how the English language continues to adapt and evolve over time, and in general I applaud linguists for acknowledging that our speech is a fluid and ever-updating organism. Collective nouns aren’t an exception, and to quote the above-mentioned article from the OED:
“Today’s lexicographers are describers of English rather than lawmakers. The definitions they write are based on evidence from thousands of collected texts — newspapers, scholarly journals, teen magazines, text messages — and from transcriptions of the spoken word.”
Terminology for groups of animals, then, is designed to reflect the way that English-speakers already describe the world around them. Some of the oldest cases on record, like a murder of crows as the keystone example, are traced back to some rather colorful and poetic language coined in the 14th and 15th Centuries. With the exact origins lost to time, linguists are left mainly to speculation. Perhaps it was the crow’s “traditional association with violent death” that made mid-millennia authors first adopt the colorful word in the first place. Many of these terms come from almanacs like the Book of Saint Albans that serve as touchstones for the written word centuries ago, and help ground the roadmap of how language evolved over hundreds of years into what we know and love today.
This creates an infuriatingly illogical paradox.
Linguists seem to argue two opposing sides to this historical narrative: first that these phrases represent common word-usage, and at the same time, that these eccentric terms can be spawned by a single publication which we assume reflects common usage, but in reality may just be a poetic description that holds no bearing in everyday vernacular.
And you know what? A murder of crows isn’t even used that often!
If collective nouns are determined by popular usage in common vernacular, I’m at loss. Flock is the most commonly used noun by a wide margin, and the term murder really only came about in the 1990s, seemingly in tandem with the growth of the Internet, and presumptively in tandem with web articles and blog posts that make a hubbub about random collective nouns lost to language history.
What the heck. And other examples that seem to support the “proper” collective noun still manage to be a bit confounding:
In the 1930s pride surged to the #1 spot seemingly because it was an officially-accepted collective noun…and yet it wasn’t commonly used before that point in time.
Am I furious? Yeah, a little.
So to answer my second question at the head of this article, it doesn’t seem to matter at all why these eclectic nouns come to be. In most cases, they’re far from an already-utilized standard in the English language. Linguists seem to operate in a bubble claiming that these random, encyclopedic words reflect real human speech, when in reality, they’re the creation of an elitist, in-group of wordsmiths conning the public into accepting ‘poetry’ as everyday vernacular.
But if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
Rather than whining to the Internet void about a broken, Century-old language system, I want to ride this wave. If naturalists have been able to con linguists into accepting these bizarre, nonsensical nouns into the official record, then why shouldn’t I be able to do the same?
And I’ve got a goodie.
Get ready for this.
I present to you…
A hootie of blowfish.
Some preemptive FAQ: No, there currently is not an accepted term for a group of blowfish. And yes, this term is commonly used in everyday vernacular. Thanks, Esquire.
So in short, I hope that from all my ranting in this post, someone from the Oxford English Dictionary gets flagged to my presence and manages to read all the way to the end of this article. Above all else, it’s imperative that we finally get blowfish the recognition they deserve in the annals of collective noun history.
After all, there are hooties upon hooties of blowfish out in the sea that are underrepresented.
Are you just going to stand by and do nothing?! I certainly hope not.