What’s in a name, or what would you like to be called? - Veterinary Practice
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What’s in a name, or what would you like to be called?

EWAN McNEILL is intrigued by collective nouns and wonders why they are what they are…

THE English language is nothing if not confusing to anyone trying to learn it for the first time – whether that’s as a toddler at his or her parent’s knee, a schoolchild sitting miserably at a desk, or an eager adult at night school.

There often seems to be little rhyme or reason to it, and none more so than when it comes to the tricky subject of collective nouns – the name used to describe a group of more than one of something. Often unusual, occasionally unfathomable, they are – appropriately enough for the veterinary profession – most commonly applied to animals.

So we have a herd of cows, antelope and elephants; but then we have a flock of sheep, a pack of dogs, a shoal of fish and a gang of elk. Why the need to differentiate? It would seem to be much simpler just to have a single word that describes an accumulation of, well, almost anything, as otherwise anyone not in the know can often be left baffled.

Do you recognise, for example, what objects belong to a head, a gaze and a fling without resorting to either a reference book or an internet search? (The answers being, respectively, curlews, racoons and sandpipers).

Not as much fun!

Simpler to have one word, yes, but perhaps not as much fun. Reviewing the variety and unusualness of collective nouns, it becomes apparent that huge amounts of resourcefulness and inventiveness have been employed over the centuries to assemble the array of nouns that now enlivens our language.

Some of these words we learnt as children, perhaps because of their novelty – a pride of lions, a plague of locusts, or a murder of crows. Some are in common usage – a clutch of chicks, an army of ants; whilst others are likely to be identified only by close acquaintance with the subject matter – a deceit of lapwings, a mission of monkeys.

Frustratingly, some collective nouns seem to be applied to more than one type of animal: as already mentioned, a herd may indicate a multitude of species, but sometimes a more unusual word can still suffer from not being specific enough. Is it, for instance, a crash of rhinocerii or a crash of hippopotami?

It may be argued that if a company of either of these beasts were to make an uninvited entrance into your home then only a pedant would linger to query the accuracy of the term, but insurance companies being what they are, they may well feel that any inaccuracy allows them to deny all liabilities on the policy.


Some collective nouns have become more than just literal in their meaning and are now used metaphorically – and indeed overuse now leads to them being clichés, e.g. a nest of vipers, a can of worms. Others seem perhaps inappropriate in our changing world – a ubiquity of sparrows is somehow unlikely given the current paucity of this once-common bird; whilst yet more seem rather unflattering but are undoubtedly very appropriate – an ugly of walruses, an intrusion of cockroaches, an obstinacy of buffalo, a prickle of hedgehogs.

Then there’s the descriptive type – an ambush of tigers, a pounce of cats; and to this add the confusion that some groups are positively over-blessed with the number of nouns available: do whales, for example, assemble in a school, a pod, a mob, a troupe, a gam or any one of another half-dozen possibilities?

Which perhaps returns us to the fact that many nouns are really quite bizarre and apparently meaningless, leaving us wondering how on earth they were conceived as being appropriate in the first place – a congress of baboons, a singular of boars (or should that be boar?), a husk of hares, or a kettle of hawks.

And finally we have the collective nouns that are rather doubtful – an aarmory of aardvarks sounds a little too clever, as does a stumble of drunks or a thicket of idiots.

Which brings us, not before time, to the concept of collective nouns for groups of people, and this is where things do get decidedly spurious, if not downright contrived. A flock of tourists – the inevitable comparison with a group of unthinking sheep – seems understandable, as does a giggle of girls, and even the rather inventive (if self-deprecating) description of a disworship of Scots, but when we get a ponder of philosophers, a catalogue of librarians, a nucleus of physicists, or a complex of psychoanalysts, things seem rather affected, however appropriate they may be.

Some group names are extremely apt and inventively humorous – a number of statisticians, a hangout of nudists, or a body of pathologists being excellent examples. But then a college of physicians or a flutter of cardiologists bring things rather closer to our own situation, and at last raises the question: what is the collective term for a group of vets?


Oh, the possibilities that spring to mind! Given the profession’s tendency to indulge in alcohol consumption, an incoherence of vets may be appropriate, if a trifle unkind. Or how about a howl of vets, given the frequently-heard criticism that the professions do little but moan these days?

Then again, as a fan of alliteration, may I suggest one or two others? A vagary of vets sounds intriguing, but my dictionary indicates that this would be a fairly undesirable epithet, suggesting us to be capricious or fanciful.

A vivarium of vets may sound too serpentine and sinister for some, and a vicissitude (which is an unpredictable change of fortune or circumstance) of vets could be considered as being too close for comfort, given that recent legislative changes makes it seem that we are less and less in control of our professional destiny.

Indeed, this could lead on to a vanquishing of vets, as the pessimists amongst us predict that we could become an endangered species as more and more of our territory is eroded by other people. More optimistic persons might suggest a variegation of vets, as vets are nothing if not individuals – although this title may simply be damning with faint praise.

But before we settle on a term, should we not consider the possibility that we may not deserve a collective noun? It seems to me that the vexing inability of the profession to speak with one voice over so many issues, whether that be tail docking, LVI matters, the setting of practice standards, or almost any other political topic, could suggest that we are not identifiable as a group of like-minded individuals at all.

So until the profession can speak with one voice, instead of demonstrating disunity and bickering, self-promotion and back-biting, we perhaps don’t deserve, or require, a collective noun.

Or we could just settle for a truly damning designation, such as a disarray, a disappointment, or a disorganisation of vets.

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