Collective terms have always held a peculiar fascination for people – more so (one could say) than the orbit of Pluto, the diet of mountain goats and what exactly constitutes a ‘recession’. More so (furthermore) than the development of the epistolary novel, the origin of the phrase ‘the ungirt loin’ and the contents of the top drawer of my wife’s dressing table. No, as interesting as these things may be, collective terms almost always win out in the end.
A post or so ago, I signed off with the collective term ‘a movement of moles’ (an ending which, for at least one sad day, was subject to an unfortunate mistyping: ‘a movement of moves’). I would be lying to you if I said that this is one of my favourite collective terms. Still, there are certainly worse ones (a ‘dissimulation of birds’ has always struck me as especially weak example. You can find several others at this ‘reliable’ source)
All of which begs a quaggle of questions. Firstly, who is in charge? Collective terms are sometimes considered, like many facets of the English language, to be a set of ‘correct’ words, blessed in marriage to their corresponding nouns by the high priest of invisible (but oh-so-certain) protocol. Woe betide the man who gets one wrong! The hot soup of vengeance will be swiftly spilt all over his lap. You can’t just go around making these things up. It’s a ‘descent of woodpeckers’ or nothing at all. One doesn’t want to irk a pestilence of Oxford professors.
Every now and again, however, one stumbles upon a situation in which there seems to be no cast-iron or ‘correct’ collective term. Whilst there can be two or three terms for any animal, there are often none for human types. How does one refer, for instance, to a group of writers or critics? Is it a ‘cackle’ or a ‘cloth’ of critics? Of course, it need not be alliterative. How about a ‘heave’ or ‘heap’ then? As for writers, I oscillate between ‘wreath’ and ‘pocket’ – perhaps even ‘spasm’.
The most important collective term, however, should be that reserved for my favourite breed of human beings: obscure European writers. What dost thou think? An ‘oakery’ of obscure European writers? An ‘encumbrance’? A ‘scombroid’?