A Compendium of Collective Nouns

A gang of elks, troubling of goldfish and flange of baboons. Here's one for all you fact fans out there…

 Photos: Jo Keeling

Photos: Jo Keeling

Today, we have mainly been appreciating A Compendium of Collective Nouns by the fine fellows over at Woop Studios, who will be beguiling us with the history of these eccentricities of the English language in issue one of Ernest Journal. To perk up a drizzly Tuesday, here are a few of our favourite tidbits, some dating back to the 15th century, others picking up speed ever since their reference in a 1970s TV show...

A Mutation of Thrushes

The authors of the books of venery were not predicting Darwin with this term, but taking a cue from a common fable of the time. Hardwicke’s Science Gossip from 1867 speaks to a myth, still prevalent hundreds of years after the writing of The Book of Saint Albans: “It is a recognised fact that thrushes acquire new legs, and cast the old ones when about ten years old.” This common fact remains news to many in the scientific community.

A Rascal of Boys

The term a rascal of boys was first recorded in the fifteenth century and, unlike the group of snot-nosed children it was presumably named for, it has aged quite well – it has, in fact, broadened the meaning. Rascal derived from the Old French rascaille, which meant “rabble”. Its original English meaning was similar to the French – it denoted a mob or a member of a rabble. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the rascal became what he is today, a fun-loving rogue or mischievous scamp.

A Whoop of Gorillas

This term, and it’s fictional cousin, a flange of baboons, have made a surprising amount of headway in the digital age, where, if something is posted online with enough frequency, it starts showing up in search engines and takes on a life of its own. These terms were both in fact born on a BBC sketch-comedy program from the late 1970s called Not the Nine O’Clock News. A famous sketch featured Gerald the Gorilla – comedian Rowan Atkinson in a gorilla costume – informing the audience, among other things, about the proper collective terms for his primate brethren.

A Wisdom of Wombats

Compared to koalas and other marsupials of the Australian fauna, wombats are perhaps less romantic-seeming, since they basically resemble common rodents. They are, however, the largest burrowing mammal in the world, with some weighing up to eighty pounds. The wisdom of a wombat perhaps arise from its unique defence system. The wombat’s posterior consists of thick cartilage and lacks a tail, so predators (such as dingos) that chase a wombat back into its burrow tend to have little to grab on to. Wombat scat is uniquely cube-shaped, which, while not belying wisdom, at least speaks to a great deal of concentration on the wombat’s part.

For more fascinating nuggets, pick up a copy of A Compendium of Collective Nouns, £21.99, Woop Studios. Or hang fire for our feature in issue one of Ernest, when we will be giving away a copy to a keen reader.