Every now and then a news story will shine a light again on a quirk of the English language. In the last ten days, the quirk was the collective noun. The gasps and OMGs of two English women as they kayaked on Lough Derg, was the backing-track to a hitherto not often-mentioned collective phenomenon – a murmuration of starlings.
The word murmuration refers to the sound thousands of starling wings make as they beat the air while wheeling and turning at breathtaking speed. Although equally it could be the sound of hundreds of starlings muttering under their breath: “Does anyone know why we are doing this?”
Or it could be the over-reaction of hundreds of birds on being diagnosed with a heart-murmur and a murmuration only ceases when another starling assures them that heart murmurs are quite common and eminently treatable.
Many of the more fanciful collective nouns come from the Middle Ages. Birds – which were the targets of hunters – were also the targets of the hunters’ observations. There is a plausible explanation all of these words. A deceit of lapwings stems from the way the birds will try to distract predators away from their nests by pretending to be injured. For a related reason we therefore have a deceit of Premiership footballers.
It depends on where the birds are too. Geese on the ground are in a gaggle – in the air they are a skein. It’s the same for humans. You have a group of men at a conference but a gang of lads on a stag night.
Unfortunately some opportunities have been missed in the bird kingdom. Why is it that we do not have a gallon of petrels?
Where more than one land mammal are gathered, then there are also many names. Sheep are in a flock when they are being conventional, a drove when they are being driven, a herd when they are acting the bullocks, a mob when they are attacking a branch of Currys and a parcel when they are in a hamper.
In Hiberno-English we have our own set of collective nouns. You can get a dose of the trots, a clatter of culchies, a rake of pints, a fist of it, a waste of space.
The king of Irish collective nouns is the shower. A shower is overwhelmingly a negative word. Perhaps ingrained in every Irish native who has ever tried to organise anything out-doors is a deep hatred of the shower. Somebody somewhere, while packing up a picnic in fury, or wrestling with an awning, swore that from that day forward that showers were bad. So if you find yourself in a shower, chances are you’re a b*****x or something far worse – like a ****.
And even worse, you may be stuck there particularly if your shower has achieved an unfortunate exclusivity and finality. i.e. “They are nothing but a shower of ******s”.
Shower terminology can get confusing. For example ‘This shower’ is generally the current government. ‘That other shower’ is a government that has recently been voted out – because they thought the electorate came down in the last shower.
There is plenty of scope for new collective nouns too which can accurately describe newer situations.
In our everyday lives we have a distraction of iPhone-users, a sigh of Goths, a suspicion of bouncers, a boredom of shop-workers, a slick of salesmen, an annoyance of chuggers and a misplaced-confidence of buskers.
The family is the ultimate collective and here we see the tenderness of groups. A group of parents waiting outside a school is called a concern. Once the children are released from class, this becomes a going concern. Collective nouns vary between families depending on the health of the relationship. Cousins, like lions, may be grouped in a pride or in a bitter-jealousy.
The entertainment world is another area for rich collective pickings. We have a preen of X-Factor Judges, a strut of Apprentices, an incredulity of Bill Cullens and a bemusement of Celebrity Bainisteoir footballers.
It is the world of politics that allows us the best opportunities for grouping similar objects together.
The recent Presidential campaign threw up plenty. A group of candidates will hereafter be known as a scandal. If you have some envelopes and you’re not sure how many there are or indeed if they exist at all, that is known as a gallagher of envelopes.
And of course the broader political world gives us a delusion of ex-fianna fail ministers, a panic of Eurocrats and, on a positive note, a happiness of bondholders.
Meanwhile, the starlings will settle down soon for the Winter unaware that their murmuration was watched by an Internet of people.