Collective nouns refer to individual things, creatures, or actions as a group. In English we speak of a mob or the clergy, meaning "a set of persons" or "members of the clergy in general". Grammatically, mob is singular, but semantically, mob has a plural meaning: "A mob was moving down the street quickly."
Collective nouns for certain kinds of animals present a strange array of names. We speak of a herd of sheep, flock of chickens, murder of crows, nest of vipers. This specialised vocabulary changes the meanings of otherwise ordinary words, for example, pride of lions or school of fish. The formula "an X of Y" demands that the second element is also plural. You can say, "A murder of crows" but not "A murder of crow." The meanings of such names also determine what other words they can be combined with. We can say, "The pride of lions scatters". We can say, "The lions scatter". But we can't say, "The pride of lions scatter".
Most of these collective names for animals are unknown or not used in contemporary Englishes – Have you ever heard of a crash of hippopotami? But in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they were very popular among French and English gentry and aristocrats. It became fashionable among upper-class speakers of English to give different names to groups of different animals and even to their different kinds of poop. By 1500, what began as specialized vocabulary to distinguish one hunted species from another soon became a fad in its own right and led to ridiculous, sometimes satirical extremes. The Book of St. Albans (1486), a guide for the English gentleman with chapters on hunting and hawking, codified many of these collective names, thus giving them a longer life in English than they might otherwise have had. The Book of St. Albans also included some obviously joking collective names for groups of humans, such as a Sentence of Juges or a Disworship of Scottis.
Mark Amsler is a Senior Lecturer in English, Drama and Writing Studies, Faculty of Arts
Download a free poster featuring collective nouns of animals , illustrated by Elam School of Fine Arts graduate, Kyu Lim