I was talking to a French friend, trying to explain the difference between a herd of cows and a pack of dogs, and having difficulty. That’s part of this quaint, slightly laughable feature of English vocabulary – that, like so many other elements of this language, hardly anyone knows what the rules are. And nobody really cares if you break them a little and say group instead of gaggle of geese (though to do so mislays a word of much specificity and charm.)
A quick Google of “animal group names” led me to a joyful page on the San Diego Zoo website, full of eccentric terms – some, if we’re honest, a little beyond belief.
First comes joy, then analysis. Some terms describe the appearance of a group of animals:
A caravan of camels,
A tower of giraffes,
A cloud of grasshoppers.
Some, the noises they make:
A cackle of hyenas,
A smack of jellyfish,
A crash of rhinoceroses.
And some words describe the way they move:
A skulk of foxes,
A romp of otters,
A scurry of squirrels.
Many of these terms say more about humans than about the animals they describe. Some assign very human qualities to groups of animals:
A shrewdness of apes,
An obstinacy of buffalo,
An unkindness of ravens,
An ostentation of peacocks.
Stranger than this, some words refer to the way humans order the world:
A congregation of alligators,
A parliament of owls.
Some give us clues to how we esteem different animals for their individual qualities:
A pride of lions – “Such noble creatures!”
A labour of moles – “They work so hard!”
Some words refer to more organised, violent groupings found in the human world:
A troop of baboons,
A mob of emus,
An army of frogs.
Some words are downright menacing:
An ambush of tigers,
An intrusion of cockroaches.
Some, downright silly:
A rhumba of rattlesnakes.
A troubling of goldfish.
Many of these words are extraordinary – unbelievable, even. But I prefer to believe in the odd and the ridiculous. After all, if enough of us believe in and use these words, the English language in its capricious way will truly adopt them as its own. It will be all the richer for it.