Talk to the animals: The art and humour of the collective noun

From 'a dazzle of zebras' to 'a shiver of sharks', collective nouns are a fascinating quirk of the English language, dating back hundreds of years. Holly Williams discovers a new series of prints charming...
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The Independent Culture

An aurora of polar bears, an ostentation of peacocks, an embarrassment of pandas... Collective nouns, the terms used to described a group, can be an imaginative bunch. We're used to herds or flocks or even gaggles, but some of the lesser-known collective nouns for animals seem fabulously unlikely (a fact that's even acknowledged within the phrase "an implausibility of gnus"). They are the stuff of pub quizzes, late-night conversations with friends – and a boon to writers who want to enliven their prose.

A group of graphic designers have now created a whole series of artworks illustrating these descriptive or comedic words. Woop Studios have an exhibition of their two animal alphabets at EDC London this month, and they are launching a website which they hope will become the definitive source for this much-loved quirk of the English language.

Miraphora Mina, of the Woop group, explains how the project grew out of their own enjoyment of collective nouns. "Mark [Faulkner], who is the commercial brains behind the collaboration, had always had a passion for collective nouns in a very whimsical way. His partner, Harriet [Logan], is an old friend of mine and we were just talking about it one day. He said he wanted to do something that was more than just laughing about it." Mina and fellow graphic designer, Eduardo Lima, had just finished working on the Harry Potter film franchise after 10 years, and were in need of a new project. They fell in love with the idea of doing something involving these wonderful terms.

"We loved how each one can tell a story, matching the visual, the animal, with the term and the type," she explains. "Sometimes it was more obvious than others how it would work, but it was usually led by the words. We were used to doing that for film; you look at a script and have to find ways to do it in images."

The results are charming, and bring to light many collective nouns that most of us have never heard of. But can they all be real? Does anyone really use "a loveliness of ladybirds" or "a shiver of sharks", or are some Woop's own creations?

"Everyone asks that! They are real – we did quite a lot of research and found that the oldest ones go back to hunting terms, so they are hundreds of years old, although there are more recent ones that people have invented," says Mina. "Most British people do know a few of these terms but they'll be surprised by some of them. The website will show the full 2,500 terms we've found, which goes right up to recent inventions. It does provoke people's imaginations – someone sent me a text today asking for a collective noun for advertising executives!"

Fiona McPherson, senior editor for the Oxford English Dictionary, unravels the history: "Many of the more illustrative collective nouns belong to 15th-century lists of 'proper terms', most notably in the 1486 Book of St Albans, which is attributed to Dame Juliana Barnes. Most are quite fanciful or humorous and probably didn't have any real currency, but were taken up by other antiquarian writers."

On the subject of whether these words ever were part of common parlance, a scientific lexicon, or whether they've always been just a bit of fun, McPherson says: "I think it probably is a curio of the language. Interestingly, some of the less fanciful ones (such as a pride of lions, a flock of sheep), didn't appear in the Book of St Albans. While it wouldn't be unexpected to hear these being used in more serious and scientific contexts, it is unlikely that any of the more ostentatious or flowery ones would be used."

The Woop team is based in London, but its operations are set to move to a barn in Essex, owned by Logan and Faulkner. "It was allegedly built by the Knights Templar, which is when some of these words hark back to," says Mina, "so that felt serendipitous!"

Woop plans to branch out from animals, possibly doing a series for the Olympics, or for the Chinese Horoscope, although Mina says it could be applied to nationalities, or professions, as well: "We can tailor the style for the subject – we don't want to just keep churning out the same thing." Perhaps their next project should be a cacophony of collective nouns, or a woop of printmakers?

See 'Collective Nouns' at EDC London, W1 until 24 December, or at woopstudios.com

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