I was around 10 when I learned ‘parliament’ was the collective noun for owls. It’s an appropriately grand term for such stately creatures and yet completely stupid at the same time. What’s wrong a flock of owls? Still, I was intrigued by this particular peculiarity of the English language and my lifelong love of collective nouns began.
The first example I researched was the common ferret. I played footy for the Forestville Ferrets RLFC. I’d been hoping the collective noun was something cool, but it wasn’t. A quick look in the Funk And Wagnalls Encyclopaedia revealed a group of ferrets is known as a ‘business’.
When our coach called us a ‘team of mighty ferrets’ at training one day, I jumped in and corrected him: “But Mr Ford, we’re a business of ferrets!”
Ol’ Fordy was a lovely bloke and he didn’t treat me like the freak I quite possibly was. “Well, make sure we’re in the business of winning on Saturday, eh?” he laughed and ruffled my hair.
How about a knot of frogs? Creeks ran through my childhood neighbourhood and often the roar was so loud it dominated discussion at the school bus stop. “Jeez, how about the bloody frogs last night? What a deafening herd,” Chalkley, the local knowall, remarked.
“A knot,” I cut in.
“Yeah, it was heaps loud Henderson!”
“I know. A knot of frogs though…”
“Of course it was frogs, idiot!”
“I know it was frogs, but the name for a group of frogs is a ‘knot’.”
“Says who, smartarse?”
This was a good question from Chalkley. Who, indeed, were the people who got to bestow strange, fantastical names upon groups of creatures? Who decided it was a band of gorillas, a smack of jellyfish and a crash of rhinoceroses? Does a secret panel convene at Oxford University every second year to review submissions from people around the globe? From 10-yearold footballing ferrets perhaps? Exactly who is it that green-lights the rules around collective nouns?
Whoever it is, I don’t reckon they’re always on their game. After all, plenty of collective nouns are a downright asinine mismatch. An unkindness of ravens? A murder of crows? A dole of doves? Wide of the mark if you ask me. Surely it should be an unkindness of politicians, a dole of bong-monsters and a murder of Milats.
A little later in life it occurred to me that one species above all was in greater need of collective nouns for its various sub-groups: human beings. Sure, there are already plenty of nouns that fulfill the overall role – crowd, family, gang, tribe, team etc. But I reckon we need a compendium of cool-sounding collective nouns that cover peoples’ professions, hobbies and habits.
The idea first took hold one day in the mid- 1990s when I walked into a Sydney pub with the late, legendary crime reporter-cum- TV-newsreader Sean Flannery. We were supposed to be meeting some of his mates from Channel 10. Sean asked the barmaid if a ‘scandal of journos’ had already arrived. She nodded in the direction of the back-bar and there they were – a scandal all right, all snug in a smoky corner.
Ever since then I’ve been on the lookout for other sub-species of Homo sapiens to group into collectives. So far I’ve come up with a few I reckon aren’t too bad. A spit of punks. A froth of surfers (it used to be a stoke but I’ve updated). A bulge of bankers. A congratulation of breakfast TV hosts. A smudge of miners. A lurk of security guards…
With an unkindness already taken by ravens and parliament spoken for by other flesh-eating predators, there’s scope for some creativity when it comes to our elected officials. An entitlement of politicians has a nice ring to it, as does a blame of MPs. After all, it’s always the other mob’s fault.
Which brings me to you blokes: The tradies. If there’s fertile ground for collective nouns it’s in the building game, right? What wouldyou call a group of chippies, plumbers, painters, roofers, sparkies, concreters and all the rest?
Now, I’m 90% journo and 10% part-time labourer, so I’m not going to presume to know the best collective nouns for these categories. I reckon it’s up to the experts – you guys. Why don’t you send your best suggestions in to the editor? I’ll send them off to the secret panel at Oxford and see if we can’t make them official.
Or at least I’ll print the best ones in the next issue.