Wondrous, whimsical and inconceivable words for wildlife

A romp of sea otters  (Photo by Mike Baird, Wikimedia Commons)

A romp of sea otters (Photo by Mike Baird, Wikimedia Commons)

April 4, 2016 | by Tim Irvin | 0 Comments

A leap of leopards. A prickle of porcupines. A romp of otters, an exaltation of larks. These terms are not typically very practical, yet the collective nouns used for animals are fanciful. And fanciful is good.

I like to think these charming phrases are inspired by the wondrous nature of the animal kingdom itself. I can easily imagine how a parliament of owls or a consortium of crabs could send a scribe into fits of creative linguistics. You cannot think of a sneak of weasels without smiling a bit, at least on the inside. You can’t. That is kind of sneaky, and neato.

A murmuration of starlings (Photo by John Holmes, Wikimedia Commons)

A murmuration of starlings (Photo by John Holmes, Wikimedia Commons)

A charm of goldfinches. A maelstrom of salamanders, an unkindness of ravens, a blessing of narwals.

I bet the person who gets the job of coming up with this stuff would say something like, “Yeah, well, the pay is miserable, the benefits are ghastly, but hey, it’s a fun gig.”

The great William Shakespeare coined many marvelous phrases, including “in my mind's eye,” “dead as a doornail,” “sea-change,” “forever and a day,” and even “knock, knock, who’s there,” (amongst many, many more). Yet I wonder if he would be a bit miffed that someone else came up with an “implausibility of gnus.”

Implausible? Maybe. But regardless of what Shakespeare may have thought, these terms are whimsical. And, collectively speaking, I think we need more whimsy. Here’s some:

A wisdom of wombats, a sleuth of bears, a convocation of eagles, a gaggle of geese.

I haven’t searched too hard, but I cannot find a collective noun for octopuses. Nonetheless, I did find a great story about them by Sy Montgomery in Orion magazine. The second paragraph reads:

I have always loved octopuses. No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange. Here is someone who, even if she grows to one hundred pounds and stretches more than eight feet long, could still squeeze her boneless body through an opening the size of an orange; an animal whose eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that taste as well as feel; a mollusk with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and a tongue covered with teeth; a creature who can shape-shift, change color, and squirt ink.

Octopus (Photo by Albert Kok, Wikimedia Commons)

Octopus (Photo by Albert Kok, Wikimedia Commons)

Reading that my mind leapt into action. I felt like a school kid waving his hand in the air shouting “Oh. Oh. I know, I know” – An inconceivability of octopuses.

Try to beat that. You won’t. You can’t.

It is also inconceivable that you will ever see a group of octopuses, anymore than you are likely to stumble upon a crash of rhinos. A pandemonium of parrots — perhaps. But a group of octopuses? Never.

You will also never taste anything with your fingers, change colour to match the wallpaper or squeeze your body into the recesses of an impossibly small space like, say, your toaster.

An inconceivability of octopuses. It’s perfect.

But enough from me. If you want a beautiful reminder of how fanciful, wondrous, whimsical and inconceivable nature can be, you need not look any further than a murmuration of starlings.

This article originally appeared in Tim Irvin's blog and is reposted with permission on Land Lines.

About the Author

Tim Irvin is an ecologist, writer, photographer and wildlife guide.

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