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Where Never Is 'Herd' a Discouraging Word

Rob Kyff on

We all know that a gathering of geese is a "gaggle," a passel of fish is a "school," and a herd of sheep is a "flock."

But did you know that a cache of cobras is a "quiver," a stash of starlings is a "murmuration," and a dollop of doves is a "piteousness"?

Lest you think these species names are specious, let me explain how they evolved.

While hunters in merry Olde England were sitting in soggy swamps waiting for a "paddling of ducks," they'd pass the time with conversation. You might assume they engaged in profound discussions about the origins of the universe, the viability of feudalism, or at least the relative merits of ale versus mead.

Nah. One hunter simply said to the others, "Hey! Let's make up weird names for groups of animals!" Huzzah!

In many cases, the names they concocted reflected obvious characteristics or activities of a breed: a leap of leopards, an ostentation of peacocks, a skulk of foxes, a rafter of turkeys, a barren of mules (mules can't reproduce), a sleuth of bears, a labor of moles, a flush of mallards, a plump of waterfowl, and, in an amazing preview of Darwin's theory of evolution, a shrewdness of apes.

Anyone who's ever seen a rhinoceros burst out of the underbrush will certainly understand "a crash of rhinoceroses" but at least one term is slyly based on something the animal doesn't do: a trip of goats.

Other herd words screech with annoying traits, e.g., a siege of herons, a murder of crows, a prickle of porcupines, a plague of locusts, a rout of wolves, a stench of skunks, and one that Edgar Allan Poe undoubtedly would have appreciated: an unkindness of ravens.

Many names mimic human organizations: a parliament of owls, a colony of ants, a congregation of plovers, a convocation of eagles, a mustering of storks, a watch of nightingales (night watch, get it?) and a business of ferrets. (Why am I thinking of telemarketers?)

 

My own favorites capture the unique splendor of a particular species. Who could resist a pride of lions, a charm of finches, or an exaltation of larks?

Now see whether you can match each species with its collective name:

Animal: 1) buffaloes 2) crocodiles 3) elephants 4) flamingos 5) giraffes 6) hippopotami 7) hyenas 8) penguins 9) squirrels 10) tigers

Group: A) bask B) stand C) tower D) bloat E) waddle F) scurry G) cackle H) ambush I) obstinacy J) parade

Answers: 1) I 2) A 3) J 4) B 5) C 6) D 7) G 8) E 9) F 10) H

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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