Recently I was reading an article about Bluebottles. This summer has seen masses of these small stinging vessels washed up all along the east coast of Australia causing lots of angst for beach-goers. Apparently, they don’t want to sting us; it’s how they fish. And they don’t even want to land on our beaches; as the biologist interviewed in the article gracefully explained, the armada of bluebottles is ‘at the mercy of the wind’.
Her use of the collective noun for these creatures got me to wondering about our penchant for such creative group labels when it comes to our animal friends. They range from the very common ones everyone knows:
a school of fish;
a swarm of bees;
a mob of kangaroos;
a string of race horses;
a murder of crows;
a barrel of monkeys;
To the unfamiliar:
a shrewdness of apes;
a raft of otters;
a wake of vultures;
a scurry of squirrels;
a battery of barracudas;
an ambush of tigers;
a skulk of foxes;
a memory of elephants;
a hover of trout;
a manner of meerkats;
And the extraordinary:
a shiver of sharks;
a ubiquity of sparrows;
a gever of stingrays;
a bind of eels;
a boil of hawks;
a smack of jellyfish;
a congress of baboons;
a parliament of owls, thought to be from Chaucer’s poem, ‘a parliament of fowls’;
and an exaltation of larks,
from the 15th century Book of Saint Albans, about hawking, hunting, and heraldry.
I’m reminded by this list that animals are the sometimes intimate, mostly mysterious, others that share this planet with us. Our awe for these creatures is surely reflected in these splendid labels devised with the same creative zest that accompanies some of humanity’s greatest literary endeavours. Some are surprisingly appropriate; others sound like they were made up by a novelist and yet others mirror the political and social behaviours of humans. I wonder if in the animal world there is a collective noun for us.
I can imagine a menagerie of exotic beasts whiling away their time in captivity making up appropriate names for human behaviour to date:
a procrastination of people,
when it comes to action on climate change;
a filibuster of humans,
when it comes to saving animal species and habitats;
a shilly shally of citizens,
when it comes to taking civic action to protect the oceans;
and a commonwealth of fools when it’s come to voting for the planet.
Although I know it was just a whim of the wind that has sent us an armada of bluebottles this summer, I can’t help but think that their rather idiosyncratic name, Portuguese man o’ war, named after their resemblance to an 18th-century Portuguese sailing warship, holds a message about the future. Bear with me while I continue on this flight of fancy. I think it’s pretty clear what the message is. In the last two years in Australia, and across the world, we’ve had wild summer bush fires, an ongoing pandemic, severe flooding, and evermore extreme weather. Our global temperatures are rising and I can’t help but think that the planet is rebelling at our treatment of it. We need to reduce greenhouse gasses fast. And although you can think about this and feel despair, I choose to feel hope, because in Australia, 2022 is a federal election year and we have a real chance to make a choice that makes a difference.
In a democracy, one of the collective nouns we use for human beings is an electorate of voters, but unlike the blue bottles, we get to choose which way we go.
Images: Blue Bottle – Andreas Schwind, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons; Monkeys – Rajeev3065, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons; Meerkats – Ashleigh Thompson, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons; Owls: Travelwayoflife, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons; Ship of fools – Pieter van der Heyden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Articles: Bluebottle Jellyfish Numbers Explode by Georgie Burgess and A Drudge of Lexicographers Presents Collective Nouns by Merriam-Webster. Links:
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