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Culling Words

On the undesirability of some collective nouns

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Let me be quite clear about my murderous intent. I’m not using ‘culling’ in its benign, less common sense of ‘gathering’ or ‘picking up’. I want the word to convey the full weight of its grimmer meaning: ‘selecting and destroying as inferior or superfluous’. It may seem strange that a writer should seek to launch a pogrom directed against the very elements of his craft. Seeking the elimination of words surely brings me perilously close to implementing the principles of Newspeak. Though this might be welcomed by aspiring autocrats, it should surely be anathema to writers. It’s an unwritten law that writing should enrich our language, not steal words from it. Let me offer the reassurance that what I’m proposing is the most precisely targeted of surgical strikes. There will be no collateral damage. Though my proposed cull is directed at collective nouns, within this general category most of its denizens are safe. I have no bone to pick with the vast majority of them. Who could object to ‘herd’, ‘tribe’, ‘species’, ‘government’ (I mean the word), ‘orchestra’, ‘team’, or indeed ‘majority’? These are all words I would wish to have at my beck and call, part of the store of vocabulary I can draw on.

The culprits I have in my sights are a different breed. They distract the reading eye, the listening ear, by claiming attention for themselves. They are redundant locutions which purport to uniquely designate the assemblages they refer to but which in fact merely confuse because of their own oddness. They obtrude a clumsy artificiality into whatever they’re attached to. Such words may claim technical accuracy and appeal to obscure lists that do indeed give them as the right collective noun for a particular group. But, even if correct, they’re so unnatural that anyone hearing or seeing a sentence that contains one would be puzzled rather than enlightened. If words only foul up the smooth running of description, why use them? Doesn’t such unfitness-for-purpose suggest that culling would be more appropriate than keeping?

My intended cull is limited to collective names for groups of creatures. Again, even within this condemned category there are plenty that are blameless. I have no quarrel with a litter of puppies, a swarm of bees, a pride of lions, a shoal of fish, a flock of sheep, a school of whales, a pack of wolves. These turns of phrase – and many others – are unproblematic. They don’t thwart communication but serve it. They have no case to answer.

But if someone talks about a ‘labour’ of moles, a ‘pace’ of asses, a ‘down’ of hares, a ‘sounder’ of pigs, a ‘business’ of ferrets, my hackles start to rise. Such supposedly correct group names for these beasts are, to my mind, just distracting obfuscations.

Often, a collective name has its origins in an attempt to encapsulate in a single word the nature of the animals it refers to. What’s seen as the essence of the species is instilled into the term used to describe its members — a ‘leap’ of leopards, a ‘skulk’ of foxes, a ‘sloth’ of bears. But building such invariable qualities into the categories themselves seems misguided. It guarantees restricted use, if not widespread obsolescence. Leopards might as easily be sleeping as leaping. Foxes racing across a moonlit field are miles removed from any skulking. Bears may hibernate – which surely inclines to prudence more than sloth – but when they hunt there’s a deadly energy about them that the group name, if accepted, would blunt. Maybe a ‘baren’ of mules has some claim to catch the essential and invariable quality of these beasts (but why drop off that second ‘r’ that drives home the point more clearly?).

For some reason that I’ve never fathomed, such collective nouns occur with greatest frequency when it comes to birds. Once again, there are many entirely acceptable group names here, all of which can be granted immunity — a colony of terns, a skein of geese, a brood of chickens, a flight of swallows. But who would ever talk or write about a ‘dopping’ of shelduck, or a ‘nide’ of pheasants, a ‘wisp’ of snipe, or a ‘siege’ of herons? If, walking in my local park, I saw a flock of ducks dabbling in the pond, I would never point and say to my companion ‘Look! There’s a ‘sord’ of mallard’. That would simply sound ridiculous.

There are, inevitably, some borderline cases — instances where group names for birds fit smoothly enough into common parlance, or where, arguably, their jutting out is so slight it won’t make us miss our footing. A case might be made for a ‘charm’ of goldfinches, a ‘murmuration’ of starlings, maybe even an ‘exaltation’ of larks. But I suspect their claim to exemption from my cull is dubious at best. It stems more from their being well known as quaint examples of collective names than from any actual functionality. In what context would their use be effective? You might trot them out as answers to a question in a pub quiz, but would you ever actually introduce them into ordinary expression? ‘A charm of goldfinches flew over the garden’, ‘I saw the sky darken with a murmuration of starlings’, ‘there was an exaltation of skylarks above us’. Really? Can their presence in a sentence ever work?

I understand the urge to sum up the essence of something in a word or phrase. Precision in writing is a virtue I applaud. Finding the right expression, the word that fits, tracing out exactly in your diction whatever it is you wish to talk about, ensuring that verbal contours accurately map the topography of your subject — such efforts surely lie at the heart of good writing. Aphorisms try for the same deft exactitude within small compass that some group names attempt. When they work, they can be memorably effective. Think of Camus’s dismissal of our age: ‘A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers’. Bull’s-eye! But can a single word ever suffice to catch the elusive quality of a group? Perhaps a ‘charm’ of goldfinches has some claim to do so, or – in an altogether different register – a ‘murder’ of crows. But almost all the group names suggested for birds strike me as awkward not apt. They’re cumbrous inventions rather than the kind of intuitive insights that lie at the root of the aphorist’s art.

Though I suspect many group names are of very little descriptive use, thinking about them can have some positive upshots. In the course of writing this piece I asked various friends and family members to come up with their own collective nouns for things. This had some entertaining and instructive results. Among my favourites were ‘a yawn of theologians’, ‘a kindness of nurses’ and ‘a fuss of academics’. There was also ‘an eccentricity of writers’ and, more acidly, ‘an irrelevance of poets’, but I suspect these were directed at me rather than intended as widely applicable categories. Whether tongue-in-cheek or serious, these invented names provide a rapid diagnostic that reveals what we think about the group in question.

Maybe my cross-section of respondents was unrepresentative, but I find it interesting, sad, revealing – but entirely unsurprising – that when it came to politicians the suggestions made were all derogatory. ‘A deceit of politicians’, ‘a corruption of politicians’, ‘an ineptitude of politicians’. This scarcely suggests a contented electorate. But it is, I suspect, an accurate litmus test of popular sentiment at present.

In view of how considering them led to some interesting destinations, perhaps culling is too extreme an option to apply to the collective nouns that I dislike. Maybe it would be better to shepherd a ‘muster’ of peacocks, a ‘plump’ of waterfowl, a ‘covert’ of coots, along with a ‘clowder’ of cats, a ‘kindle’ of kittens and a ‘smuck’ of jellyfish (there’s an endless supply of the damned things) into display cases in a museum of redundant words. We could visit them there periodically as a way of honing our epigrammatic skills in finding apt names for whatever groups we’re thinking about.

Chris Arthur lives in St Andrews. His most recent essay collection is Hummingbirds Between the Pages. Among his writing prizes are the Sewanee Review’s Monroe K. Spears Prize, the Akegarasu Haya Prize, and the Times Higher/Palgrave Macmillan Writing Prize in the Humanities.

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