Collective nouns are nouns which refer to a group of similar things as a singular entity. Indeed, the word group is itself a collective noun. They exist in most languages and many are so common in the everyday vernacular that their usage is entirely unremarkable to a native speaker. Similarly, while remembering the fact that a collection of flowers is referred to a bouquet may be initially challenging to a student of English, it soon becomes unnoticeable with enough exposure.
Other collective nouns – almost exclusively those referring to people or animals – are remarkably unordinary. A party of friars is a term that, although accepted, still seems rather quaint to most people. Yet such curiosities are a peephole into a distant past and understanding their origins can reveal the inner workings of the minds of our ancestors.
For example, a group of cobblers was historically referred to as a drunkship. This collective noun, itself a relic of a different era, makes apparent the perception of cobblers in medieval society. They were considered the lowliest of the tradesmen and, unlike richer merchants and skilled craftspeople, drank ale as opposed to wine. While they were still wealthier and of higher social status than the majority of the population, within towns and cities they were towards the bottom end of the social hierarchy, and their collective designation as a drunkship by the societal elites reflects this.
Beneath the cobblers, and indeed most people in medieval England, in status were prostitutes. The alliterative expression herd of harlots was intended to dehumanise and further stigmatise sex workers, likening them to farm animals. While even nobles frequented brothels, the women who worked in them were scorned by their contemporaries, regardless of their clientele.
While nuns perhaps had an immeasurably different profession, their collective noun was not significantly more kind. A superfluity describes an excessive amount of something, and convents, so crowded as they were, were thought to have an excess of nuns. Moreover, many in England believed that abbeys, monasteries and convents should be disbanded, or at the very least see their influence diminished, and as such deemed their inhabitants too great in number as well.
Yet these examples are incredibly outdated to the modern reader, and one is unlikely to come across them even in a literary setting. Terms of venery however are still widely used yet can appear bizarre even to those who have spoken English their entire life.
Terms of venery are the collective nouns specific to a species or other grouping of animals. Some, such as a pride of lions or school of fish are unlikely to raise any eyebrows. Others, while notably less common, are still viewed as quite normal. A gaggle of geese is such a case, although intriguingly this only refers to geese wandering on the ground. In flight the correct term is a skein.
Yet a more poetic turn of phrase, a murder of crows, is quite a startling name. This too has its roots in medieval folklore, yet unlike the strange collective nouns for people, it is still used today. Their tendency to scavenge livestock carcasses, as well as their dark plumage, gave crows a reputation as ‘creatures of the night’ and the superstitious considered them witches in disguise. With such a sinister reputation, the name murder probably seemed apt.
Most other terms of venery stem from the desire of the upper classes to prove their erudition and use specific terms for the groups of animals they would hunt. A herd of deer, cete of badgers, and husk of hares can all trace their origins to noble hunters.
But before you fear that our collective creativity dried up in the 1500s, know that the popular parliament of owls was only coined by C. S. Lewis in the 1950s, and remains in use today. While strange names for groups of almost every mammal and bird have already been assigned, there is a notable lack of unique collective nouns for insects, reptiles, and amphibians. If you wish to make a new word to stand the test of time, that might be a place to start.