28 December 2011

An Unkindness of Ravens

Are ravens cranky? Are they actually unkind? Does unkindness have a semantic link??

An unkindness is the official collective noun for ravens in English. I bet if I point out an "unkindness of ravens" in the park one day, my friend Sandra will be enchanted. (She's very enthusiastic about learning new things, and also easily enchanted.)

Other collective nouns (or quantifiers) are so commonly used that we no longer analyze them. The phrase becomes a whole, not just the sum of its parts—like an idiom. When you hear the idiom "let the cat out of the bag," do you picture cats in, and then out of, bags? No. Here are some collective nouns that are similarly transparent in use:

• a pride of lions
• an army of ants
• a school of fish

School of Fish
Home-Schooled Fish
Montessori School of Fish
But if you do analyze the common examples, they're as imaginative and charming as a "murder of crows" and a "float of crocodiles." A pride, an army, a school? Where did such quaint quantifiers
come from?

Heck, I don't know. But below are some that are official in English and yet, huh??

Smack! Oh, sorry. Smack! Oops. Hey!
• a glaring of cats—Someone not-very-cat-liking was being wicked clever there.

• a smack of jellyfish—Got me. Maybe you really have to  know jellyfish for that one to work.

• a knot of frogs—It skeeves me just to picture this. Brr.

• a piteousness of doves—Is piteousness even a word, on its own?

You can make up your own collective nouns. (Talk about idiosyncratic.) Here are some of mine:

What if I want whitening,
fluoride protection, tartar control,
healthy gums, AND plaque removal?
Will they not all fit in one tube?
• My son got an arsenal of video games for Christmas.

• There was a slag heap of laundry to sort. (Those who didn't grow up near a coal mine may not get this.)

• I went to the store to get toothpaste and was stopped short by a confrontation of choices.

• A pubescence of middle-schoolers came pouring out of the classrooms.

• The restaurant was filled with a gallery of gay men.

—and, what I think is my best effort so far:

• Onto the field marched a potluck of lesbians....

"She always brings that."


  1. Funny AND informative. Nice post!

  2. Had you realized that the "Home-Schooled Fish" was a tribute to you? >:-D