We all know that a stack of bound paper is called a pad. A group of people, a crowd. Useful distinctions to be sure, but a tad lackluster. Now compare:
A leap of leopards. A prickle of porcupines. A romp of otters, an exaltation of larks.
Not typically very practical, yet the collective nouns used for animals are fanciful. And fanciful is good.
I like to think these charming phrases are inspired by the wondrous nature of the animal kingdom itself. I imagine that a parliament of owls or a consortium of crabs could send a scribe into fits of creative linguistics more than, say, a pile of bound paper. You cannot think of a sneak of weasels without smiling a bit, at least on the inside. You can’t. That is kind of sneaky, and neato.
A charm of goldfinches. A maelstrom of salamanders, an unkindness of ravens, a blessing of narwals.
I bet the person who gets the job of coming up with this stuff would say something like “yeah, well, the pay is miserable, the benefits are ghastly, but hey, it’s a fun gig.”
The great master of our language, Willy Shakespeare, coined many marvelous phrases including “in my minds eye”, “dead as a doornail,” “forever and a day” and even “knock, knock, who’s there,” (amongst many, many more). Yet I wonder if he would be a bit miffed that someone else came up with an “implausibility of gnus”.
Implausible? Maybe. But regardless of what Shakespeare may have thought, these terms are whimsical. And, collectively speaking, I think we need more whimsy. Here’s some:
A wisdom of wombats, a sleuth of bears, a convocation of eagles, a gaggle of geese.
I have always loved octopuses. No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange. Here is someone who, even if she grows to one hundred pounds and stretches more than eight feet long, could still squeeze her boneless body through an opening the size of an orange; an animal whose eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that taste as well as feel; a mollusk with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and a tongue covered with teeth; a creature who can shape-shift, change color, and squirt ink.
Reading that my mind suddenly leapt into action. I felt like a school kid waving his hand in the air shouting “Oh. Oh. I know, I know” – An inconceivability of octopuses.
Try to beat that. You won’t.
It is also inconceivable that you will ever see a group of octopuses, anymore than you are likely to stumble upon a crash of rhinos. A pandemonium of parrots – perhaps. But a group of octopuses? Never.
You will also never taste anything with your fingers, change colour to match the wallpaper or squeeze your body into the recesses of an impossibly small space like, say, your dishwater.
An inconceivability of octopuses. It’s perfect.
But enough of my musings. If you want a beautiful reminder of how fanciful, wondrous, whimsical and inconceivable nature can be, you need not look any further than a murmuration of starlings.