Herds of turkeys

I used to live in a log cabin on 20 acres about eight miles outside of town. It was surrounded by woods, so I could sit on the porch, or just look out the windows, to see various critters wandering around. There were deer, of course, who were out in the pasture every morning and evening, and a flock (herd?) of turkeys that wandered through occasionally. Groundhogs, rabbits, hawks and owls, squirrels and chipmunks, and raccoons were regulars, and every once in a while I would see a fox. I could walk down to the pond and say hello to the frogs, or look out my office window at the hawk perched in the tree above the pond thinking about doing the same re: the frogs. My two cats loved wandering around outside. Felix was constantly bringing me gifts of dead mice or voles, leaving them in my shoes. Rita was more maternal: she didn’t kill them but brought them in alive, carrying them by the back of the neck like she would a kitten. For a while I was daily rescuing baby chipmunks from her. Then it progressed to toads.

Speaking of herds of turkeys (wasn’t I?), why is that we apply collective nouns based on species and not on behaviour? Turkeys are birds, so the collective term is usually a flock. But in a group they act an awful lot like other large animals that we group into herds. Japanese tourists? Definitely herds. Fans waiting to get into a ball game? A swarm. Teenage girls at the mall? A flock.

These collective terms apply not just to animals but people as well: you can have a “troop of soldiers” or a “troupe of actors”. The recent fashion is to form fanciful collective terms based on some attribute of the noun it describes, or a play on words, for example an “illusion of magicians” or a “shower of meteorologists”. A “clutch of breasts”, anyone?

Have you ever heard anyone use a collective to refer to a group of cats? Me neither. James Lipton (of Bravo channel’s Actors Studio) wrote a compilation of collectives titled An Exaltation of Larks; in it he says that the term historically has been “clowder”, “cluster”, or “clutter” of cats. But I assert that there is no such thing — you never see cats together as a large group. If you’re ever around high-tech people you’ll hear the phrase “herding cats” in reference to managing engineers, and know that it’s an impossibility.

Lipton’s book is pretty good, but is, essentially, just a list turned into a book. Nowadays it would be web page or a page on Wikipedia (see for example this page). I have more fun making up my own, or mixing up ones commonly in use — just to bug people. My kids think that I’m nuts.


About pininforthefjords

I'm pinin' for the fjords. That's all.
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