Have you ever wondered about the history behind some of the more curious collective nouns, such as a pride of lions or a murder of crows or an unkindness of ravens or a team of horses?

They, like so many of the wonderful things in life (the boudoir, the macaron, confetti, Cinderella, ballet, department stores), have come to us courtesy of the French. Here’s some l’histoire for you …

Collective nouns entered the English language with the 1066 Norman invasion of England, after which French reigned as the language of royalty and power for the next few centuries. Originally terms used in courtly hunting, hawking and heraldry, collective terms at first described groups of animal and birds, but really took off in the Middle Ages, when many more were coined (a parliament of owls, a string of ponies, a gaggle of women, a den of thieves, a comedy of errors …) as a way to add a fun flourish to the language.

English has continually grown and expanded, thanks to the literary likes of Shakespeare but also regular everyday speak, embracing any terms that capture the imagination, and ignoring what grammarians might think.

The French language, however, was stripped back and simplified in the 17th century, and has ever since been strictly controlled by the Académie Française, so the French don’t use anywhere near the number of collective nouns that we do. Although they do have some quite wonderful ones, such as …

  • un nuage de sauterelles (a cloud of locusts)
  • un nid de guêpes (a nest of wasps)
  • un banc de poissons (a bank of fish)
  • un essaim d’abeilles (a swarm of bees)
  • un murmure d’étourneaux (a murmur of starlings)
  • une nichée de souris (a nest of mice)
  • un noeud de vipères (a knot of vipers)
  • une nuée de papillons (a thick cloud of butterflies)
  • une flamboyance de flamants (a flamboyance of flamingoes)
  • un panier de crabes (a basket of crabs — but also an expression akin to a can of worms)

Isn’t that all so fabulous? I live for this stuff. Hmmm, I wonder what the collective noun for collective noun lovers is … a collection? … Or maybe just a herd of nerds,


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