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Why are collective nouns standby questions in a Zoom quiz? And why do they never stick in the memory even if the same question came up two weeks ago? And we’re not thinking of a gaggle of geese (or women) or a pride of lions. No, we’re talking of the esoteric. Does anyone in everyday speech talk of a busyness of ferrets or a tabernacle of bakers?
I thought they might have been something to torment children in an age when they had no electronic devices to entertain them.


However, having Backrubbed – that’s the old name for Google (quiz question) – collective nouns, I learnt that the ones we use today date from the late Middle Ages. Monks were looked on as abominable because they had an easier life than the peasants, who would have preferred their old religions.


Nor were “terms of venery” – that’s the old name for collective nouns (putting that in the next time I am quizmaster) – something for children to learn by rote. They were hunting terms “intended as a mark of erudition of the gentleman able to use them correctly”. Hence a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens and a richesse of martens – the pine marten having the most highly-prized pelt. The Book of Saint Albans (1486) was a collection of advice and information on hawking, hunting, and heraldry. Dame Juliana Berners, the prioress of an abbey near St Albans was a contributor. She allocated “nouns of assembly” according to the rank of the owner. Hence a cast of hawks denoted nobility, but a flight of goshawks indicated that they were owned by a yeoman.


A superfluity of nuns? The nunneries were overcrowded with unsupported females, widows and unmarriageable daughters.


Later came modern expressions, light-hearted and humorous, for occupations. A misbelief of painters, a shuffle of bureaucrats, a shush of librarians.


There are several choices for a group of writers. Perhaps we would favour an excellence of authors but more accurate is likely to be a procrastination of authors.

An ingratitude of children was probably coined by Adam.