To the best of my knowledge, English is the only western language that indulges in whimsical nouns to describe groups of things. Of course, there are collective nouns that have made it into the standard language – a herd of cattle, or a flock of birds, for instance. But long ago, as far back as the 15th century and probably much earlier, inspiration joined forces with imagination. Flocks of birds became a murmuration of starlings, a watch of nightingales, a muster of peacocks, and so forth.
Many of these fanciful terms can be traced to a book printed in 1486 – the Book of Saint Albans, which includes a catalogue of “The Companys of Beestys and Fowlys.” It’s more than ‘beestys’ and ‘fowlys’ however that made it into the list. As an example, a bevy (which, incidentally, has become standard English) is used to describe not only a group of quails but also a group of ladies.
Sometimes the collective nouns can be explained with reference to folklore or behaviour of the group. The collective noun for crows – a murder of crows – has been given various explanations. Some believe that crows judge and execute (murder) any of their own who have violated the crow code of conduct. Furthermore, as scavengers and predators, crows are often associated with death. (I, however, hold crows in the highest regard and appreciate their intelligence and social nature more than any alleged murderous tendencies.)
Parliament is the collective noun for a group of owls. The background to this name is twofold, combining parliament, a place where serious discussions are held and wise decisions reached, and the owl, which being the attribute of the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, has long symbolized wisdom.
Occasionally the collective noun describes a quality or characteristic of the group, as in a skein of geese, since their formation in flight can resemble a length of yarn. When several hundred or thousand flamingos gather together they’re referred to as a flamboyance of flamingos, an apt descriptor for such vividly coloured birds.
There are collective nouns in the Book of Saint Albans that seem to be based on an emotion we associate with a particular species of birds, or our emotional reaction to groups of them, as in a charm of goldfinches or an exaltation of larks.
In this spirit I’d like to propose a new collective noun, though not for animals, birds or fish. Rather, it’s for advertisements, such as flyers delivered as a group. I think of them as an annoyance of ads. Printed on different kinds of paper, often combining different sizes, folded in different ways, their lack of uniformity makes their perusal irritating. I’d also apply the collective noun to those ads continually erupting on computer screens. They can drive one to distraction, especially when they’re animated.
Advertisement has its roots in the Latin “advertere,” to turn towards. Intended as promotional messages, ads have now reached the point where people like me turn, not towards, but away, in annoyance.
Sabine Eiche is a local writer and art historian with a PhD from Princeton University. She is passionately involved in preserving the environment and protecting nature. Her columns deal with a broad range of topics and often include the history (etymology) of words in order to shed extra light on the subject.