Collectivity by Jamie Kirkpatrick


Every language has its idiosyncrasies and English is certainly no exception. Try to explain “to,” “too,” and “two” to a Tunisian, or “do,” “due,” and “dew” to someone from Dusseldorf. They’re going out there without their boots…wow! Why should “wood” and “would” sound exactly alike? Should we polish the Polish furniture? What produce does that farm produce? There’s no egg in eggplant or, for that matter, no ham in hamburger. Quicksand works slowly, boxing rings are square, and guinea pigs are neither from Guinea nor pigs. Every kid knows that noses run and feet smell. And over here on the Eastern Shore, it’s the season of the rut when a buck does funny things when does are present!

On the other hand, there is a certain quirky richness to English and nowhere is this more apparent than in our descriptors for gatherings of certain animals. Many of these are very familiar—everybody knows that cows gather in herds or that dogs and wolves roam in packs—but some are a bit more eloquent: a pride of lions, a clowder of kittens, a parade of elephants, for example. Some even hit the nail right on the collective animal head: a crash of rhinoceros, a shadow of jaguars, a cackle of hyenas, a bloat of hippopotamuses, a prickle of porcupines (ouch!), a tower of giraffes (duh!), a conspiracy of lemurs (think of their masked faces), a richness of martens (all that fur!), a romp of otters and a barrel of monkeys (all that fun!), an obstinacy of buffalo (I’m not making this up), a sloth of bears (sorry, Landon friends), a labor of moles (all that digging!), a shrewdness of apes, and, of course, everyone’s favorite these days—a congress of baboons!

Fish swim in schools, whales and dolphins patrol in pods, sharks collect in shivers, lobsters form a risk, but oysters must be lazy because they lie in beds all day.

Even our reptile friends get in on the action. Frogs gather in armies, but toads assemble in knots. Salamanders form a maelstrom. Crocodiles bask; cobras quiver.

Birds have wonderful collective nomenclatures: there are the generic flocks of course, but there are also gaggles of geese, skeins of ducks, scolds of jays, murders of crows, bevies of quail, and murmurations of starlings. Want more? How about a stand of flamingos (perfect!) or a cauldron of bats (even more perfect!), a descent of woodpeckers, an exaltation of larks, a parliament of owls, an ostentation of peacocks, a wake of buzzards, and—no offense, Baltimoreans—an unkindness of ravens. (The bard of Charm City, Edgar Allen Poe, would have been proud of that one!) And by the way, if you’re planning a big Thanksgiving feast, don’t forget to order a rafter of turkeys!

But language has never been a static thing; these days, it almost has to reinvent itself every few hours. So here are some ideas for a few new collective nouns: up on Capitol Hill (remember that congress of baboons?), I think I spy a cowering of Republicans while across the aisle, there is a bombast of Democrats; both are closely watched over by a moneybag of lobbyists up in the gallery. Meanwhile, down at the White House, a twitter of Trumpers are fearful of a whispering of leakers while a muckrake of Muellers scrutinize their every move. In another month or two, you can be sure that a split of justices will rule on the matter.

Feel free to write back.

I’ll be right back. (See what I mean?)

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is


Jamie Kirkpatrick



Letters to Editor

  1. Evan Thalenberg says:

    I love the way Jamie writes and this musing in particular. He is so creative in his reflections. I laughed out loud at the “split of justices”.
    Muse on Jamie!

    • Jamie Kirkpatrick says:

      Thank you, Mr. Thalenberg, but being the Bay Saver you are, I’m somewhat surprised you didn’t take umbrage at my swipe at those “lazy” oysters who lie about in beds all day!

  2. James Buckley says:

    You forgot: A fiction of media.

  3. Along those lines –
    Did you know ?
    The hyoid bone in your throat is the only bone in your body not attached to any other.
    Its physically impossible for pigs to look up at the sky.
    ‘Bookkeeper’ and ‘bookkeeping’ are the only 2 words in the English language with three consecutive double letters.
    The past tense for the English word ‘dare’ is ‘durst’.
    The word ‘testify’ derived from a time when men were required to swear on their testicles.
    The word ‘typewriter’ is the longest word that can be typed using only the top row of a keyboard.
    111,111,111 x 111,111,111 = 12,345,678,987,654,321
    The word ‘underground’ is the only word that begins and ends with the letters ‘und’.
    The word ‘almost’ is the longest word spelt alphabetically.
    Months that start on a Sunday will always have a Friday the 13th.
    The side of a hammer is called a cheek.
    The letter W is the only letter in the alphabet that has 3 syllables (all others have 1).
    The word ‘lethologica’ describes the state of not being able to remember the word you want.
    The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick’ is said to be the toughest tongue twister.
    The opposite of a ‘vacuum’ is a ‘plenum’.
    Clinophobia is the fear of going to bed.
    3 teaspoons make up 1 tablespoon.
    A connected bunch of bananas is called a hand and individual bananas are called fingers.
    A 15th anniversary is called a quin decennial.
    A group of frogs is called an army.
    A group of rhinos is called a crash.
    A group of kangaroos is called a mob.
    A group of whales is called a pod.
    A group of geese is called a gaggle.
    A group of foxes is called a skulk.
    A group of owls is called a parliament.
    The dot on top of the letter ‘i’ is called a tittle.

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