Q: What has four wheels and flies?
A: A garbage truck.
...No, wait. I got the punch line right but the wrong question. Let's back up and try that again.
Q: Johnny, name a collective noun.
A: A garbage truck!
I read that joke in I don't know how many riddle books as a kid, but had no idea what it meant until it was explained to me. It would have been much funnier if the term "collective noun" had been in use when I was in school... Eventually I learned that a "collective" word is a specialized term used to refer to a group of like creatures or objects, as in "a gaggle of geese." But the term "collective noun" is not the ideal one for such terms; it can also mean a word referring to a group of people collectively as a unit, such as "corps" or "band" or "team."
Some months back, I mentioned that the word "venery" refers both to hunting and to love. James Lipton, in his seminal book An Exaltation of Larks (Penguin Books, 1993), uses the phrase "terms of venery" (or, with tongue in cheek, "venereal terms") to refer to words like "gaggle"; they originated in upper-class hunting terminology in medieval England. Lipton provides over a thousand terms of venery, including a couple of hundred that date back five hundred years as well as hundreds more invented in modern times.
For instance, some mallards that I saw recently might most correctly have been termed "a sorde [or sort] of mallards." More generically, a group of ducks on the water is "a paddling of ducks"; if they take to the air, they become "a team of ducks." "Sorde" and "fflushe," the other mallard-specific term, apparently refer more properly to mallards in the act of taking to the air. (Alas, the mallards I saw were neither in the air nor taking to it; they were disporting themselves comfortably on the asphalt of a movie theatre parking lot. It hardly seems appropriate to call them a "paddling" under such waterless circumstances. Perhaps a "waddling"?)
These distinctions may seem ridiculous to a modern ear—who cares whether that cluster of ducks is a "paddling," a "team," or a "sort"? But we do make the same sorts of distinctions in modern English, just not as many of them as courtly hunters of old did. We still refer to a flock of geese, a pack of dogs, a herd of horses, a school of tuna; and as Lipton indirectly points out, no native speaker of English is likely to mix up those terms.
Lipton's modern terms of venery largely refer to kinds of people rather than to animals of the hunt. (As, in fact, do dozens of the 15th-century terms he provides.) He cites a joke, for instance, in which a group of academics refer to a group of prostitutes as "a flourish of strumpets," "an essay of Trollope's," and "an anthology of pros." Lipton slightly deplores such puns, insisting that the point of creating new terms of venery is to enrich the language and to enlighten hearers about some aspect of the group being described. I, on the other hand, much prefer the puns to the more mundane terms (many of which are nonetheless funny or clever, I admit). But then, Lipton's introduction takes a strong prescriptivist bent, indicating that English is going to the dogs (a pack or kennel of them, no doubt) and that the language's only hope is to create newly poetic terms of venery. So his goals are considerably loftier than mine; I'd rather just play with words.
To be fair, Lipton does explicitly hope "that the evangelistic tone of [the] preface will be forgiven," and he provides specific rules for turning the creation of terms of venery into a parlor game. His rules amount essentially to all players coming up with terms of venery, with one judge (a position that rotates among the players) initially determining categories and later awarding points to the best terms created. A further and less formal variation might involve one person calling out a noun and other people calling out appropriate terms of venery as they come up with them.
A couple of terms I'd previously heard as common usage aren't in Lipton's book. "A congeries of eels," which I was taught was The Correct Term for eels, turns out to be merely a pun (though a nice one) on "conger eel." And Lipton lists "a gaggle of women" and "a gaggle of gossips," but not the first non-goose use of the term I heard, "a gaggle of girls" (which I suspect was in the novel Adam of the Road, but I don't have a copy handy to check). For plenty of other terms not listed by Lipton, see further-reading items below.
I'll leave you with a few terms of venery of my own devising:
- a clique of Web-surfers
- a glaze of channel-surfers
- a surround of go players
- a grant of professors
- a drove of used-car dealers
- a spin of skateboarders
- a career of professional bicyclists
Other sources for terms of venery include:
- the Collective Noun Page, with links to information about a mailing list on the subject
- a compendium (that I've yet to see) entitled A Crash of Rhinoceroses: a Dictionary of Collective Nouns, by Rex Collins (Moger Bell, 1993)
If you come up with new terms, you may want to contribute them to the above Web page; I'd love to see them as well, and will print the best I receive on a reader comments page, but there are so many big collections extant that I'm not going to attempt an exhaustive collection of my own.