Being a writer by trade and someone who always enjoyed English classes in school, I can’t help but be fascinated by words.

Especially strange ones.

Fortunately for me (and others like me who tend to notice linguistic anomalies), the English language is a veritable glory hole of strangeness that provides ample opportunity to apply that fascination. But there’s one particular area of our colorful form of verbal communication that – to me – is dripping with wonder and absolutely begs questioning: words of the “collective noun” variety that are used to describe groups of animals.

While the average person would describe animal gatherings by (quite rightly) using simple terms like “a bunch,” correct grammar would require employing a number of substantially more obscure (and arguably weird) words. What led to the creation of all these seemingly random titles is probably a mystery lost in the annals of history, but it’s almost like people long ago went down a list, tossed handfuls of words and letters in the air, and then made up names based on whatever landed upright – regardless of order.

Just for the sake of building our knowledge of largely useless information, let’s look at some proper English for groupings of certain animals. Remember, I didn’t make this stuff up and I’m not promoting the use of these words (don’t blame me; I lay no claim to the English language – I just use it, same as you).

––A clowder of cats.

Say what?

If you’ve never heard the word before, something tells me you’re far from alone, and it won’t be surprising if you never do again.

But you know those five felines that hang out in your shop building? That’s your clowder.

––A flockof camels.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Look, there goes a flock of camels flying west for the summer!

I can’t get over the hump and accept this title as even remotely feasible. I wonder who spit this one out.

––A coalition of cheetahs.

The question is, do all cheetah coalitions have the same agenda and support the same political party? I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re into promoting rapid transit and fitness.

Whatever the case, it stands to reason that they get stuff done in a hurry.

––A rabble of butterflies.

Well, at least we now know where the term “rabble rouser” must have come from. If you disturb a bunch of butterflies, you have undoubtedly roused a rabble.

And what does a rabble-rouser do? Cause a disturbance.

There you have it.

––A sloth of bears.

So, is a group of sloths called a bear? Land sakes, of course not. Sloths gather in a bed.

Probably because they always act so sleepy.

Alrighty then.

––A smack of jellyfish.

Perhaps named because that’s what you want to do to a bunch of jellyfishes with which you have unwittingly found yourself in close proximity: smack ‘em to get ‘em away from you.

––A couple of impala.

Next time you’re on a safari in Zambia, when a group of impala runs by, that’s a couple, regardless of how many actually comprise the group.

If there’s a few, it’s still a couple; if there’s a dozen, it’s a couple.

I dare say that’s going be hard to get used to.

––A crash of rhinoceros.

You know, this one doesn’t seem quite so random. A bunch of rhinos could definitely cause one heck of a crash.

OK, so you thought birds grouped in flocks, right? Me, too; but not so fast, my friend.

If you see a bunch of cranes (actually the plural of crane is crane), you’re looking at a herd of them. Lay eyes on a group of crows and you’re viewing a murder of the big, annoying things. And if you happen to notice a gathering of falcons, they’re in a cast (having already passed the audition, no doubt), and that group of buzzards flying overhead is in a wake (which makes plenty of sense, really).

Of course, to observe proper English to its fullest, we must be aware of each prickle of porcupine, squabble of seagulls and pack of perch we cross paths with.

And cattle farmers in the Ozarks should probably be aware that if their herd numbers 12 or more, it’s no longer a herd. It’s a flink.

As if.

Personally, I think the flink should be the herd and the herd should be the flink. That’s what I think of flink.

As I mentioned before, I’m in no way advocating the use of any of these words, nor the hundreds of other odd ones that denote animals groups. I’m also pretty sure that the one and only time most people who read this column will be aware of the existence of the words listed is while they read this column.

And that’s just fine. To me, a bunch of cats is just that: a bunch of cats. Rest assured, if I’m ever driving along and someone in the car yells, “look, a mess of skunks!” I won’t correct them by saying, “surely you mean, a surfeit of skunks.”

Seems to me that we have no need for so many descriptive words for animal multiplicity. But that’s English for you: there’s almost always more than one way to reach an end result.

Clowder. Smack.

I don’t think so.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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