Geese Aren't Always Gaggles: Animal Collective Nouns

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Climbing out of your car in a crowded supermarket parking lot, you hear what sounds like a raucous cocktail party. Glancing skyward, you see the sound's origin: hundreds of migrating, low-flying Canadian geese coming right at you. It's at this moment that your ability to remember seemingly pointless facts suddenly comes in handy. You recall that Canadian geese defecate up to 92 times a day! Being the upstanding citizen that you are, you look to your right and warn the stranger getting out of his car, "Take cover! There's a gaggle of geese coming in fast!"

Despite your good Samaritan act, the stranger gives you a supercilious gander. He opens his mouth to speak, but the geese are almost upon you. Diving back into your car, you vaguely hear his condescending reply. "No, no, no, get your terminology correct. Geese are only called a gaggle when they're on land. That, or a flock. But when they're in the air you call them a skein, wedge, or te-" Three poo bombs to the face prevent him from finishing his comment. Apparently migrating geese don't like grammar police, either.


There's a time, place, and manner for discussing the correct use of collective nouns, and the earlier fictitious situation wasn't one of those times. Now, however, is a good time.

The earliest use of collective nouns stems from the Book of St. Albans, published in 1486. The work contained three essays on hawking, hunting, and heraldry. This is why almost all collective nouns refer to animals. The book was so wildly popular that it was reprinted in the 16th century in dozens of different editions. It's perhaps for this reason that the hundreds of terms coined in the book still persist in Oxford Encyclopedias today.

Ever heard of a "shrewdness" of apes? A "flange" of baboons? You should be calling many bears a "sleuth," and bees a "grist." You can call a group of asses a "coffle," but only when they're in a roped line. It's a "bellowing" of bullfinches; a "pounce" of cats; a "rangale" of deer; a "stand" of flamingoes; a "business" of flies; a "whoop" of gorillas; and a "gam" of whales. And don't forget that owls are a "parliament" and parrots are a "pandemonium." 


Heard_of_Cats_by_speedycrabinc (1).jpgA pounce of cats. (Image by speedycrabinc)

Believe it or not, these terms are supposed to make sense. According to Michael Quinion, a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, many of them were originally based on zoological observations:

"...an exaltation of larks is a poetic comment on the climb of the skylark high into the sky while uttering its twittering song; a murmuration of starlings is a muted way to describe the chattering of a group of those birds as they come into roost each evening; ...a spring of teal is an apt description of the way they bound from their nests when disturbed."

Animal collective nouns: they're descriptive, clever-sounding, and slightly based in science. I say it's high-time they make a comeback in everyday use!  If you agree, Wikipedia has a terrific list to study. Just remember to use this new-found vocabulary responsibly and avoid turning into the grammar police.

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