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A Flock of Nouns

Who, I wonder, was the word-inventor who first came up with the idea that a goose by itself may well be just a goose, but that a gathering of geese had to be a ``gaggle''?

``Gaggle'' is the archetypal collective noun, the one that springs most readily to mind as a tried-and-tested example of the genre. In use as far back as the 15th century, it was (I regret to report) then applied to both companies of geese and of women. Everyone knows, however, that the 1470s had a deplorable disregard for political correctness, so perhaps allowances should be made.

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Not all collective nouns have such a long history, or have persisted so effectively in common usage. Even ``gaggle'' is not an entirely unselfconscious word. People say it rather affectionately in quotes. But it is not quite taken for granted in the way a flock of sheep is, or a forest of pines, or a bunch of grapes. ``Gaggle,'' indeed, is just the kind of word quiz hosts like: ``Name the correct term for a collection or gathering of geese.''

I always feel slightly wary when ``correct'' is applied to words. There is something about it that suggests a pedantic desire to have language set in aspic. One of the beauties of collective nouns is that they invite inventiveness.

According to author and editor Rex Collings in his book ``A Crash of Rhinoceroses'' (which is itself ``a new term that deserves to be more widely used,'' Collings says), there are precedents for several other collective terms for geese: such as ``flock,'' ``wedge,'' or ``skein.'' A ``shoal'' is also possible for goslings, and a ``plump'' for wild geese. So there isn't just one right geese-word.

Collings is, for the most part, the picture of propriety in his book (from Bellew Publishing, London); he discusses only terms with some sort of established history. He probably feels that many of these authenticated terms are delightful enough in themselves. It is true that a ``disguising of tailors'' or a ``throng of angels'' could hardly be bettered.

But in one of my favorite books about words, ``Ounce, Dice, Trice,'' (Abrams) by Alastair Reid (with drawings by Ben Shahn), can be found a collocation of collectives that its author has either invented, seen, or heard, but for which he offers no better credentials than that he likes them: A ``blunder of boys,'' a ``giggle of girls,'' a ``consternation of mothers,'' and a ``grumbling of buses'' are among his choices, as are also ``a smother of spiders'' and a ``snuttering of monkeys.'' None of these have found their way into the Collings book.

But one term that both of these amusing books mention is ``an exaltation of larks.'' My Oxford Dictionary calls this term ``obsolete.'' Well - if it is, it shouldn't be. It is quite simply the perfect word for what one bird-book calls ``the soaring song-flight'' of this ascendant bird. ``An exaltation of larks'' should never be omitted from any self-respecting ``dictionary of words.''