Michael McCarthy: From a siege of herons to a murmuration of starlings... why collective nouns are in peril

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A gaggle of geese, of course; but when they're flying in that dramatic V-shape, a skein of geese. And a shoal of herrings, but a school of whales. Or is it a pod?

Hang on, isn't it a pod of hippopotamuses? Though if you think back, it might be a pack of whales; don't people sometimes say that?

Ah, the entertaining confusions of English collective nouns, which make up one of the most decorative divisions of our rich language. An inquiry by The Independent suggests that some of these vividly colourful terms are falling out of real use as the creatures they describe become rarer (although a few more may be coming back into circulation as writers pick them up and deploy them for the sheer fun of it).

Our interest was sparked by an office deliberation concerning herons, after we wrote earlier this week about several rare species from southern Europe turning up in Britain: what (if anything) is the collective noun for these long-legged marsh birds? Some colleagues suggested a siege of herons; others suggested asedge. (Still more suggested ahedge.)

Well, if you look at it, a sedge makes sense because herons are often to be found among the sedges and reeds of wetland vegetation, and the grey heron's brown-coloured relative, the bittern - (for which "sedge" also applies as a collective) - can make itself disappear by standing in a reedbed with its head held vertically and blending into the background. Although, if you see herons together, you can perhaps imagine them as the tall siege engines that used to be drawn up outside medieval fortresses.

Take your pick.

However, many of the collective nouns we have for British wild birds are much more precisely expressive of the character of the creature they denominate.

A spring of teal describes perfectly the instantaneous leap from the water into flight made by Britain's smallest wild duck. A charm of goldfinches captures precisely the jewel-like quality of our loveliest songbird (although the word, from the Anglo-Saxon, originally referred to their lively chattering).

A wisp of snipe lets you see the thin line of a small flock of these waders in the sky. And at the other end of the flocking scale, a murmuration of starlings denotes in sound as well as meaning the immense, sibilant rustle of the vast starling assemblies - millions strong - that sometimes come together for nightly roosts.

Other terms seem rather more affected. We have not only a murder of crows, but an unkindness of ravens - the alleged cruelty of both species to such as lambs being referred to - not to mention a tidings of magpies and a chattering of choughs, plus a watch of nightingales (the watch being the old term for the night police patrol), a parliament of rooks, and an exaltation of larks.

How real are these terms? Have they ever been used? Some have, and some still are, according to Mark Cocker, writer, birdwatcher and author of Birds Britannica, the comprehensive compendium of British bird folklore. "I would naturally refer to a charm when watching a flock of goldfinches, and I would naturally say I had been watching a great murmuration of starlings," he said. "But some of the others are less vernacular words than literary terms. And some have fallen out of use because the flocks they described no longer exist.

"For example, I would always say a covey of partridges, but not a bevy of quail, because quail are now very rare in Britain, and no-one sees a bevy of quail any more. And an exaltation of larks has no meaning now, because the great lark flocks that used to migrate here from Europe in the winter during the 19th century, tens of millions of them, have disappeared.

"It shows how environment and culture are interlinked. We are not just impoverishing the environment by dissipating our biological stock; the language is diminished because these words carry no meaning any more."

According to Peter Gilliver, the associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, the tradition of collective nouns in English dates back to the mid-15th century and two early texts, one preserved as Egerton Manuscript 1995 in the British Library, and the other an early printed work entitled The Book of St Albans.

Both possess lists of collectives, which seem to have originated in the hunting field: in the Egerton text they are headed "Terms of Venery" (the old word for hunting). They include some of the expressions listed above, such as the charm of goldfinches and the murder of crows, and others such as a pride of lions, a muster of peacocks and a shrewdness of apes.

But then they go on to instigate a jokey tradition that has remained to this day, by applying collectives to groups of people, with such terms as an exaggeration of anglers, and an eloquence of lawyers.

Appropriate? Perhaps. But now's your chance to think of better ones for the 21st century, and win a bottle of champagne, in The Independent's own imagination-stretching collective noun competition (see opposite).

Win a bottle of champagne: invent 10 collective nouns of your own

Imaginative minds have been inventing English collective nouns for groups of people since the 15th century but there are definitely some modern groups which have not yet been given the collective treatment. Get with the zeitgeist and pigeonhole them now in The Independent's Collective Noun Competition. (And win a bottle of bubbly while you're at it).

What should be the collective noun for:

Estate agents

Actors

Football managers

MPs

TV chefs

Lawyers

Stand-up comedians

Bankers

Four-by-four drivers

Journalists

Send your suggestions to nouns@independent.co.uk by Wednesday 13 June. The best in each case will a bottle of champagne.

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