A Distraction of Collective Nouns

The best thing about living in Costa Rica is the nature. A narrow country with an Atlantic and a Caribbean coast, and a spine of volcanoes down the middle, it is host to an amazing array of natural habitats containing more biodiversity than North America and Europe combined. And my favourite aspect of that environment are the birds.

I liked birdwatching as a kid, but like many of these things, the interest wanes. Then one day something sets you off and a long forgotten passion is rekindled. For me it was an 8 hour birdwatching walk in the Monteverde cloud forest that was arranged as my dad’s sixtieth birthday present.

While I’m sure my Dad enjoyed it, I loved every minute of it, all 8 hours, and I found it to be a surprisingly peaceful and reflective experience. There’s something about standing still, listening intently only for bird song and the rustle of branches, with barely a word passing between you, that is both meditative and requires a degree of mindfulness that I find otherwise almost impossible in my daily life. There’s no conversation, no listening to podcasts, no homework to review, no emails or messages to reply to, nothing. And of course you get to look at beautiful creatures like these.

Photo 04-04-2015 10 16 10


Photo 25-11-2013 18 05 11

And as an English teacher, not surprisingly, I also have a keen interest in the English language. I’m fascinated by its quirks and eccentricities. In other words, the things that make it so damn difficult to learn.

So you can imagine my joy at coming across this book on my last trip to the U.K. A Conspiracy of Ravens: A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Birds* is a simple compendium of collective nouns for birds, accompanied by beautiful wood carvings from 1743 by the artist Thomas Bewick.

a conspiracy of ravens cover

There’s something immensely pleasurable about these phrases. Take a gander at this one:

a runcible of spoonbills

As if the word ‘spoonbill’ wasn’t enjoyable enough, you also get to luxuriate in its collective noun, ‘runcible’. Go on, treat yourself. Say that coupling of words, bound together by an article and a proposition, out loud five times. Let the syllables swim around your mouth. You’ve had a long day, you’ve earned it. And now try this one on for size…

a murmuration of starlings

and this one…

an orchestra of avocets

Which, in a roundabout way, leads me to thinking that ELT really needs its own set of collective nouns. Why restrict them to the animal kingdom alone? Here are my nominations, if you’ve got any suggestions of your own, drop them in the comments below and I might do a follow up post with the best ones.

An anarchy of prepositions
A lateness of homework
A saviour of resource books
A tiredness of students
A whinge of teachers
An underuse of interactive whiteboards
A relief of break times
A desperate why of phrasal verbs
An if of conditionals
An Adobe of webinars
A decline of vocabulary notebooks
A tote bag of conferences
A mandatory of training sessions
A crutch of coursebooks
An Amazon** of handouts
An obligation of exams
A straitjacket of syllabi
A pressure of parents
A tsunami of blogs
An abandon of cd-roms
A graveyard of student notebooks***
A distraction of collective nouns

By the way, I’m not really as cynical as these suggest, but negative ones are so much more fun to write! I just wish I had a set of appropriate wood carvings to illustrate them.

* Full disclosure: if you buy the book via this link, I get a tiny amount of money and you pay the same price as you would have anyway. This is as close as I get to making money from this blog. Amount of money raised thus far: £0.00.

** This is not another plug for the website I’m referring to above, it’s a plug for the forest.

***Hat tip to Michael Lewis Swan for this one. I read somewhere that he referred to students vocabulary notebooks as places ‘where words go to die’ or something along those lines. Any link would be gratefully received.


5 thoughts on “A Distraction of Collective Nouns

  1. Hi James, just brilliant and a collection of ideas for a class. (Sorry for my poor collective noun for ideas). I never thought birds and collective nouns could go together. It’s nice to see things from a different angle.

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