Many years ago, at Christmastime, my mother and I went to an old bookstore called the Bookpost, not too far from the house where I did most of my growing up. It operated in a former post office and it was a delightful place to browse through the shelves. I vividly remember that day, because it was one of the last times I saw my mother looking healthy—before a serious illness claimed her final year and a half. She had given me my marching orders: Find four or five books you’d really like. It was her Christmas present to me in her second-to-last holiday season.
I picked several books that I’ve totally forgotten about. But one was something special, something my mother had heard about, called An Exaltation of Larks, by James Lipton. It was a slender volume devoted almost entirely to the collective nouns that describe groups of people and animals—gaggle, flock, herd, school, host, things like that. Here are some examples.
A murder of crows…A gang of elk…A melody of harpists…A clowder of cats…A scurry of squirrels…A bouquet of pheasants…A bevy of beauties…A skulk of foxes…An odium of politicians…A failing of students…A parliament of owls…A murmuration of starlings
The book is full of hundreds of these delightful collective names. I thought of it recently, when I saw a piece by Jim Gilbert in the Star Tribune newspaper, talking about collective names of birds. He pointed out that the same bird can have several collective names. For example, geese are different depending on where they are. On dry land, they are a flock. On the water they are a gaggle. Up in the air they are a skein.
Inspired, I’ve tried to come up with a few new collective names of my own devising. A scribble of writers. A daub of painters. A shower of meteorologists. A chirp of crickets. A hatchet of butchers. A squint of readers. A trumpet of elephants. A rumble of tympanists. A docket of judges.
An Exaltation of Larks is still in print after nearly fifty years. If you love names and language, you owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy.