Monday, November 23, 2009

collective nouns

we went to williamstown on sunday to eat chips and potato cakes on the rocks by the sea.
the question of the collective noun for octopus came up. there is not much information on it (maybe because they are lone rangers in the sea? i have no idea on these questions), but:

the most likely answer to the question, "what is the collective noun for octopus?"
a tangle of octopuses.
(octopi as the plural is a bit of a red herring, from wiki: "Fowler's Modern English Usage states that 'the only acceptable plural in English is octopuses,' and that octopi is misconceived and octopodes pedantic.")

octopuses seem like really great creatures. this is a little bit on a story that circulates about a very sneaky smart octopus. it escapes from its tank nightly to go eat some fish or similar from another tank, then crawls back to its own tank before morning, with no one the wiser, until staff begin to notice the depleting fish population in other tank. search "smart octopus" and you will also find some good stuff of octopuses opening jars, escaping through 1-inch holes, etc. etc. they are now up there on my list of favourite (not usually a pet) animals .

but collective nouns, that was my original point.
i think they are a wonderful, very underrated aspect of english.
this omniglot blog entry lists some great ones, and also has a good comment by someone named mike, relating the english collective noun system to the japanese pluralisation system. in japanese "counter words" act as pluralisers, and vary for each object being counted. for example, the counter word for inanimate objects depends on the shape of the item: a different counter for long things; a different one for flat things; a different one for mechanised things etc. etc. mike's comment gives some examples to illustrate this.

the below are some great collective nouns
AskOxford (collective nouns for animals),
and also omniglot blog:

A plague of locusts
A troop of monkeys
A superfluity of nuns
A parliament of owls
A pandemonium of parrots
A conspiracy of ravens
An absence of waiters
A gaggle of swans
A congress of baboons
An army of caterpillars
An obstinacy of buffalo
A murder of crows
A school of dolphins
A parade of elephants
A busyness of ferrets
An embarassment of parents
A stand of flamingoes
A siege of herons

the pictures featured here are some of tim walker's collected animals.
the top one, swans, have a great range of possible collective nouns, including:
a bank of swans; a bevy of swans; a drift of swans; a lamentation of swans. see
AskOxford for more.

edit: i just saw this brilliant artwork by allison shulnik via a drawing diary.
there is a
drawing of a blue octopus there:)

edit #2: via the comments i see this site is doing wonderful work with the collective.
unfortunately, i am not very twitter-y and actually have no idea how twitter works.
but please have a look at their great collection.

a cluster (or clutter) of cats;
a glaring of cats (which i think is more appropriate here)

a colony of rabbits; a kindle of rabbits

a rabble of butterflies; a flight of butterflies (plus other creatures in there as well)

i just really love this tim walker image.
there probably is a collective noun for grasses, but i don't know it...


  1. 'A headache of patterns' Is one I often use to describe what I am wearing.

  2. dell, that is so brilliant:)
    would love to hear some more from everyone!
    and i guess a collective noun for grasses would be tuft? or a field, for instance...hmmm.

  3. I got the Tim Walker book for my birthday last week! Glad you posted the pics and not me - that book is heavy! Wonderful images tho. I would definitely go with the glaring of cats and what about "a shock of chenille" for the first picture? I'm adoring anything in lavender with that texture these days and there's alot of it about, surprisingly.

  4. We are collecting proposals for the collective noun for octopuses here. If you'd like to join in, Tweet your suggestion with the #collectivenouns hashtag.

    All Sorts is running a linguistic experiment, encouraging people to submit novel collective nouns. It searches Twitter for tweets containing the #collectivenouns hashtag. Anything it finds, it parses for phrases of the form: "a bunch of somethings". If successful, it adds the suggestion to our index. You can also vote for your favourites by retweeting them. That way, the best ideas bubble up to the top. You can see some of the most popular collective nouns here.

  5. love tim walker too..
    last two are great!

    collective nouns are brilliant!
    an autumn of leaves
    an annoyance of mobile phones

    nice post!

  6. ha ha! they are gerat ones, thank you mlle paradis and marie, wonderful. and thanks drew neil, i have added an edit about your site - what a great project. i am not a twitterer, but will follow the updates:)

  7. Gorgeous images!

  8. love that last image, full of plants... it looks like some dream i had...

  9. It's an arran of octopuses as far as I'm aware.