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Michael Lyons

50 Collective Nouns to Bolster Your Vocabulary

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Michael Lyons

Collective nouns may seem like quirky ways to describe groups, but 500 years ago, they were your ticket to the in-crowd. Most collective nouns, or “terms of venery,” were coined during the 15th century. Many were codified in books of courtesy, like the 1486 classic Book of St. Albans. St. Albans was a handbook for medieval gentlemen, and it contained essays on hawking, hunting, and heraldry. Appended to the hunting chapter sits a list of 164 collective nouns, titled “The Compaynys of Beestys and Fowlys.” (Contrary to the title, many terms actually describe people—a biting example of ye olde satire.)

As silly as some sound today, the phrases were formal and proper descriptions. St. Albans was, after all, a vocabulary-booster, a primer designed to help gentlemen-in-training avoid the embarrassment of “some blunder at the table.” Over the next century, the book’s popularity bloomed. Similar courtesy handbooks caught on, and by the end of the 16th century, a slew of collective nouns had entered the lexicon.

Some have achieved widespread currency and acceptance, like a “flight of stairs,” “a board of trustees,” and a “school of fish.” Others, like a “murder of crows,” barely cling on. However, a handful of obscure phrases have made a comeback, thanks to James Lipton’s wonderful compendium of collective nouns, An Exaltation of Larks. Here are a few from Lipton’s book that you should add to your repertoire.

1. Business of Ferrets

2. Labor of Moles

3. Mustering of Storks

4. Shrewdness of Apes

5. Gam of Whales

6. Smack of Jellyfish

7. Host of Angels

8. Fusillade of Bullets

9. Baptism of Fire

10. Quiver of Arrows

11. Tissue of lies

12. Murder of Crows

13. Unkindness of Ravens

14. Dule of Doves

15. Clowder, Cluster, or Clutter of Cats

16. Kindle of Kittens

17. Mute of Hounds

18. Pass of Asses

19. Ostentation of Peacocks

20. Team of Ducks (when flying)

21. Paddling of Ducks (when on water)

22. Trip of Goats

23. Sloth, or Sleuth, of Bears

24. Charm of Finches

25. Hill of Beans

26. String of Ponies

27. Hand of Bananas

28. College of Cardinals

29. Shock of Corn

30. Band of Men

31. Knot of Toads

32. Wedge of Swans (when flying)

33. Parliament of Owls

34. Superfluity of Nuns

35. Abominable Sight of Monks

36. Untruth of Summoners

37. Doctrine of Doctors

38. Damning of Jurors

39. Sentence of Judges

40. Rascal of Boys

41. Gaggle of Women

42. Gaggle of Gossips

43. Impatience of Wives

44. Tabernacle of Bakers

45. Poverty of Pipers

46. Fighting of Beggars

47. Neverthriving of Jugglers

48. Herd of Harlots

49. Worship of Writers

50. Hastiness of Cooks

According to Lipton, the terms above “are authentic and authoritative. They were used, they were correct, and they are useful, correct—and available—today.” You can pick up a copy of Lipton's book here.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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