(This column was first published in the January 27, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)
Recently I found myself arguing with a friend about the definition of "proper" nouns. (As most of us know, they "refer to specific people, places or things," for example: Little Orphan Annie and Denmark but not muskrat or three-toed woodpecker, the latter coming under the category of common noun.) Serendipitously, this argument led me to a recent edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, where, looking for "proper nouns", I found the entry for "proper terms", that is, the terms for groups of animals. There were an amazing 176 different entries.
The commonest adjective on the list was clearly "herd" and Fowler recorded herds of cattle, buffalo, deer, elephants, asses, elk, giraffes and pigs. Less expected were herds of cranes, porpoises, curlew, and, of all things, wrens. But then again, wrens do make a lot of noise and I suppose just one angry wren can sound somewhat like a herd of something else.
Most of those herds, however, have additional connotations. For example, that herd of asses is also sometimes called a pace of asses. Not a bad designation: can't you just see them striding along in unison, perhaps hauling borax. There are also the alternatives: a gang of buffalo and a drove, drift or mob of cattle. I like drift there: I can visualize cows lazily drifting across a field. Wild swine also occur in drifts but I cannot see them in the same way. More appropriate to them, it seems to me, is the sounder of both tame swine and wild boars. Lots of oinks there.
Elk also occur in gangs, porpoises in pods or schools, whales too, also in gams and, in the case of bottle-nosed whales, grinds. Perhaps they rub together.
Better still are the descriptive grouping terms. A shrewdness of apes. Perfect. Likewise a blush of boys. And a glaring of cats. Can't you just see their eyes following you?
Listen to the soft, melancholy cooing of our native pigeon, the mourning dove, and you will surely agree with the group term for them: a pityness of doves.
Equally on the mark is his paddling of ducks. But then, according to Fowler, ducks also occur in rafts, bunches or, when in flight, teams.
Other descriptive terms include a business of ferrets - if you have ever spent time with them, you'll appreciate that term - a leap of leopards, a labor of moles, a walk of snipe, a flight of swallows, a spring of teal, a peep of chicks, a congregation of plovers and an impertinence of peddlers. How perfect is that last for those suppertime phone-solicitors and e-mail spammers.
And then there are terms that I like most. They simply represent creativity on the part of their author. Consider a few.
We know flocks of birds but how about a dissimulation of small birds? A drunkahip of cobblers suggests some shoes poorly shod. A hastiness of cooks doesn't work for me as many of my relatives are English: they might better be called an overdone of cooks.
A cowardice of curs seems mean but may be related to the application of the name "sniveling cur" to a coward.
If you have seen shorebirds rise from a beach you will appreciate a fling of dunlins. A charm of finches is equally on the mark.
I found I could even add names. For example, Fowler offers a gaggle, skein, team or wedge of geese. Why not a honking of geese as well?
Which leaves us with those darkest birds which earn my highest grades: a murmuration of starlings, an unkindness of ravens and a parliament of rooks.-- Gerry Rising