It's 'Sinterklaas' in the Netherlands on 5th December. In the evening, children who still believe in St Nicholas and Black Pete put out their shoes to receive their presents. This children's festival has been dogged by controversy for many years because of the tradition of adults blacking up to play Sinterklaas's mischievous helper,'Zwarte Piet.' At long last things are changing and this tradition of blacking up is fading out to be replaced by multi-coloured 'Pieten.' While there is only one 'Sinterklaas' there are always several helpers, so even though Dutch doesn't have a tradition of collective nouns, I believe a catchy collective noun would speed up the transition to multicoloured Petes. How about a rainbow of Petes or a kaleidoscope of Petes?
Collective nouns seem to get the associative synapses firing in a way that ordinary words like herd, flock, pack and group, don't. Compare a flock of parrots with a pandemonium of parrots. With the latter you can hear their squawks, see their jungle bright colours flashing through the trees. Even the weird ones that appear to make no sense at all, such as an embarrassment of pandas, make you ponder the nature of pandas. Are they perhaps very shy and easily embarrassed?
Some collective nouns hint at the otherworldly and even attribute human characteristics to our feathered friends. A parliament of rooks, a murmuration of starlings, an unkindness of ravens can each be traced back as far as the fifteenth century. The etymologist Michael Quinion has noted that the first collection of collective nouns in English is, The Book of St Albans, printed in 1486 in three parts on the subjects of hawking, hunting, and heraldry. In the sixteenth century, the book was apparently reprinted many times over, which kept the lists of birds and beasts in the public consciousness, and indeed many of the nouns are still in circulation today.
A Zeal of Zebras
A friend celebrated a milestone birthday recently and as she was just about to start a textile design course and she loves the combination of graphics and letters, I found a really beautiful print book which I hoped would inspire her for her forthcoming course. A Zeal of Zebras is an illustrated book of the alphabet, using collective animal nouns for each letter. It was a great conversation piece at her party and I know it's something she will treasure and love for years to come. A great gift for writers and artists alike, methinks!
That is the wonderful thing about this language which we have chosen to write in. While some languages, such as Spanish, French, German and Dutch are ruled by committee there is no academy or governing body that decides on how English should evolve. So if there isn't a collective noun for something, feel free to make one up. Put it out there and if people use it enough, you can rub shoulders with Shakespeare as one of the movers and shakers in the ever-evolving journey of the English language.
What about us?
Lastly, I really think us writers deserve a collective noun, don't you? My one for the hat is an insurgency of writers. What would yours be? Do you have a favourite collective noun? An Onomatopoeia of Ocelots perhaps? A sniggering of sausages? I'd love to hear your thoughts.