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Opening a can of worms, or would that be werms?

If one goose is a geese shouldn’t a gang of geese be geeses? Definitely, but somewhere in the corruption of the King’s English a group of geese on the ground became a gaggle and a skein in the air.

Besides devotees of crossword puzzles and the game Trivial Pursuit, who knows that? If I had my way, a muster of mongeese would be mongooses and a family of fish would be trouts or salmons.

Phrases for farm animals are okay, to a point. A collection of cattle or horses is a herd and a group of sheep is a flock. Everyone knows that. But who knew that a group of pigs is a passel or a sounder of swine? Poetic, sure, but hard to remember.

This naming of animal plurality is confusing. Besides cattle, the term “herd” can refer to deer, elephants, seals and whales, despite the fact they have little in common. When we speak of a colony we could be referring to ants, penguins, gulls, rabbits, bats or a group of nudists.

And why should we attribute warlike tendencies to armies of herons, caterpillars, frogs and herring? Sure, caterpillars have declared war on farmers in the past, but what country have frogs ever invaded?
I must admit some of the words we use to describe groups of animals are perfect. A group of giraffes is known as a tower, two porcupines are a prickle, a faction of hippopotamuses are a bloat and multiple rhinoceroses are a crash. All excellent names.

Cockroaches are an intrusion, lions a pride, sharks a shiver, apes a shrewdness, hyenas a cackle, jays a scold, otters a romp, gnats a cloud and a contingent of moles are a labor. (You’ll agree, if you ever try getting rid of them.)

Then there are the terrible terms we’ve adopted. I’m sure that groups of foxes don’t appreciate being called a skulk; we slander crows by calling them a murder, and I’m sure that a sloth of bears would change their name in a heartbeat if they could.

A society of parrots, flies or widgeons is known as a company. I don’t even know what a widgeon is, nor do I know what business these companies are in. And speaking of company … a group of ferrets is known as one. Some of the worst terms are a smack of jellyfish, a troop of monkeys, a knot of toads, a barren of mules, a building of rooks and a bale of turtles.

A bale of turtles? That’s going to make PETA mad.

For some reason birds have incited excessively flowery speech. We have an unkindness of ravens, an exaltation of larks, a murmuration of starlings, a richness of martens, congregation of plovers, convocation of eagles, watch of nightingales, charm of finches and a mustering of storks or peacocks.

One wonders why these birds have wonderful-sounding names while a group of lapwings is a deceit and a throng of hawks is known as a kettle, cast or boil. And I think calling a group of owls a parliament is not very complimentary at all – to the owls, that is.

If I were in charge of the English language I’d change some of the terminology we use when referring to groups of animals. A herd of elephants would be a trunk, a wake of buzzards would become a stench, a descent of woodpeckers would be a headache, a sord or brace of mallards would be a quack, a dray or scurry of squirrels would henceforth be a plague and a pack of wolves would be a disaster.

A warren of rabbits would be a multiplication, a troop of kangaroos would be a jump, a school or hover of fish would be a limit, a grist of bees would be a stinger, a clowder of cats would become a nuisance, a gang of buffalo would be a Ted (as in Turner), a chain of bobolinks would be a Bobby or a Robert, a kindle of kittens would be a burden, a brood of chickens would be a bucket (as in KFC), a tribe of goats would become a kindergarten (for the kids) and a rafter of turkeys would be a stupid.

All these new names would be much easier to remember.
The term I hate most of all is a “pace” of asses. What does that mean? From now on, I think a group of asses should be known as a congress. Perfect – don’t you think?

Readers with questions or comments for Lee Pitts may write to him in care of this publication.

10/14/2009