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A tedium of collective nouns

July 9th, 2020 · Posted by Skuds in Life · No Comments · Life

I am in a bit of a miserable ranting mood today so I’ll vent a bit about collective nouns. If there is one aspect of language that irritates me more than coy euphemisms it is collective nouns, and especially the newly-minted ones that always seem to be presented as mildly amusing and perhaps faintly satirical.

Maybe I have no poetry in my soul, but I can’t see what is wrong with just saying “a bunch of dogs”, “a bunch of fish”, “a bunch of students” or  “a bunch of mice”, with ‘lot’ or ‘group’ being perfectly acceptable alternatives to ‘bunch’.

As an aside, I don’t think that in a pack of dogs the word ‘pack’ is entirely a collective noun because it partly describes the behaviour of being pack animals. A dozen random dogs is not a pack of dogs, it is just a bunch of dogs, but a bunch of dogs hunting as a pack is a pack of dogs. Similarly I’m not sure that ‘flock’ is really a collective noun either, but another descriptor of a behaviour. A bunch of birds might be a flock when they are flocking but they are not a flock just because there are more then one of them. What birds are not is a ‘parliament’, a ‘murmuration’, a ‘murder’, or an ‘exultation’!

Apart from anything, it must make it really hard for anybody to learn English when they are worried that they will be ridiculed for referring to a herd of foxes or pack of goats.

The worst of the worst are those collective nouns that are invented just for their humour. People say that puns are the lowest form of wit, but they are wrong. Give me a pun any day over somebody expecting me to laugh when they say “a deceit of politicians”, “a flush of plumbers” or “an algorithm of programmers”. That sort of thing is less funny than an impression that starts with somebody saying “hello, I’m <insert name of person being impersonated here>” because they are so crap at impressions you would never know who it is otherwise.

All these obscure, historical, fanciful or ‘witty’ collective nouns have their place: in literature, poetry and creative writing generally, where we want to see synonyms and variety. Save the florid language for that and in normal speech stick to a bunch of lions, a bunch of geese, a bunch of owls,  a bunch of crows and so on.


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