Ever wondered what the collective noun is for collective nouns? Well, it's terms of venery. Here's a handful of lovely ones, together with their likely origins.
A Parliament of Owls
You may already know that that's the collective noun for owls, but do you know why? It harks back to ancient Greek mythology, which saw them as a representation of Athena, goddess of wisdom. Our belief in the wisdom of parliaments may have ebbed over the ages, but owls are still esteemed as wise and canny creatures.
A Blessing of Narwhals
Narwhals are rare species of whale that spend their entire lives in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Since narwhals are rarely seen by humans, these groups are known as a ‘blessing’ - something that is gifted and not taken for granted. Most males have a single tusk, earning the species another distinctive title: “the unicorns of the sea.”
A Charm of Goldfinches
Collective nouns for birds are undoubtedly some of the finest. Chief among these is a ‘charm’ of goldfinches. Though it sounds flattering, the word actually comes from the Old English ‘cirm’, or ‘cyrm’ to describe the birds’ chattering song.
A Chime of Wrens
The collective noun for wrens is a ‘chime’, a sweeter word for a flock of the songbirds. They’re also known as “little king” in Dutch, and “druid” in Welsh. Wrens’ Latin name is “troglodytes troglodytes” meaning “cave dweller” - as they often nest low down in dark retreats, snug holes and under hedges.
A Labour of Moles
A group of moles is called a ‘labour’ - likely because of their hard-working nature, tunnelling up to 200 metres a day. If you already knew this noun you can give yourself a pat on the back; one UK quiz show contestant thought the political party which shares its name with a collective noun for moles was the Liberal Democrats.
A Memory of Elephants
Easily one of the most evocative collective nouns is that for elephants: a ‘memory’. It’s bound up with the saying that “an elephant never forgets” because of their remarkable recall and intelligence.
A Surfeit of Skunks
The funniest collective noun is one that takes issue with the very idea of more than one of this animal being in one place at any given time. Groups of skunks are called a ‘surfeit’ - meaning an excessive amount of something - surely because the foul-smelling spray they release from their anal glands would be overpowering en masse.