Collective nouns can be lovely, can be wicked. They can animate, they can annihilate. They are works of art. ‘A pride of lions’ is perhaps the most famous of collective nouns. No word other than ‘pride’ can capture the majesty of that being as it sleeps, wakes, wanders with grand unconcern in the sureties of his kingdom. The story is told of when Gautama Buddha once passed through his home town of Kapilavastu with his disciples. His young son Rahula watched the ochre-robed band from his palace’s balcony. He asked his mother Yasodhara: “Which of them is my father?” Yasodhara replied: “He who walks like a lion.”
My absolute favourite among collective nouns, however, is ‘a murder of crows’. The sudden descent of boot-polish wings, the angled glancings of beady eyes, homicidal beaks and thorny toes on an unsuspecting squirrel or a nestling cannot be better described than as a ‘a murder of crows’. Writing of the cheeky and wary Jungle Crows, which inflict casualties among the eggs and young of many birds, Salim Ali says: “These crows need to be closely investigated!”
Some collective nouns have an unbelievable loveliness to them. What can match for visual allure ‘an autumn of leaves’ or ‘a bend of willows’? Other collective nouns move from beauty to wit, like ‘a convocation of eagles’, ‘a shrewdness of apes’, ‘an aurora of polar bears’, ‘a quiver of cobras’.
There is another devastatingly apt collective noun: ‘a barren of mules’. It reminds me of Krishna Menon speaking to students at St Stephen’s College gathered for an after-dinner meeting. Typically ‘zeeing’ his ‘esses’, Menon directed this comment at a leading political idea of his time: “You zee, thiz idea iz like the proverbial mule, with neither pride of anzeztry, nor hope of progeny.”
Collective nouns of more recent coinage describe human beings and their preoccupations as well. As one who has had to attend a tedium of committees, I find ‘an agenda of tasks’ altogether delightful. And I could give these (the nouns, needless to say) a hug: ‘a pomposity of professors’, ‘a greed of lawyers’, ‘a scoop of journalists’.
Other collective nouns, in vogue for some time, could be refreshed. ‘A clan of hyenas’, is too dull and would have been better off as ‘a drool of hyenas’. Likewise, ‘a colony of wasps’ is far too prosaic and, in any case, architecturally dated. Perhaps ‘an atrium of wasps’ would work better. ‘A flight of butterflies’ is too pat and could be felt on your fingers as ‘a tremble of butterflies’. Similarly, ‘an intrusion of cockroaches’ is too academic and could open a drawerful of revulsion as ‘a scurry of cockroaches’. And ‘a colony of vultures’ is too slummy. Far better, ‘a stoop of vultures’.
One collective noun which is about no living thing, but a living moment rings true: ‘a blush of embarrassments’. Another one, again, living, throbbing, pulsating, though non-living, is ‘a tick-tock of clocks’.
We can hear a ‘tick-tock’ of time running out.
What are the clocks that are going tick-tock with such ferocious rapidity? Let me answer that through a set of collective nouns generated by thoughts drawn from recent days.
Jantar Mantar, April 2011: a cap of patriots, a sword of bravehearts, a banner of supporters, a matter of drafts, a fallacy of propositions, a danger of precedents, a question of principles, a gulp of anxieties, a gargle of inanities, a nod of yes-men, a prod of volunteers, a frown of activists, a furrow of academics, a chatter of reporters, a flash of photographers, a gawk of onlookers, a slice of pick-pockets, a slurp of vendors, a shimmer of sages, a blunder of mediators, a curse of cynics, a seizure of opportunists, a sigh of well-wishers, a chant of faithfuls, an obeisance of hopefuls, a stumble of blocks, a clearing of paths, a hail of triumphalists.
Lal Qila, August 15, 2011: a flutter of arrivals, a fort of conventions, a shiver of doves, a stripe of children, a banister of elders, a gradient of uniforms, a ramp of diplomats, a rampart of officials, a smile of front-rowers, a sneer of back-rowers, a clap of dutifuls, a drizzle of expectations, a hood of ministers, a yawn of spouses, a snooze of old-timers, a silence of the thoughtful, a prayer of the fearful, a promise of the hopeful, a lanyard of statesmen, a shower of petals, an anthem of citizens, a chorus of innocents, a sky of balloons, a cheer of supporters, a sneer of reporters, a debris of leavings, a picking of beggars.
Ramlila Maidan, August 2011: an ocean of heads, a captain of storms, a ship of hearts, a deck of guards, a stern of navigators, a flank of barnacles, a keel of grudges, a mast of hopes, a wave of pledges, a foam of soaps, a ‘hey you’ of allegations, a ‘you too’ of retaliations, a stream of callers, a steth of doctors, an ambulance of fears, a solution of lawyers, a conflict of statements, an area of agreements, a compass of path-finders.
Delhi, August 25, 2011: a finger of admonitions, a fist of retributions, a bulletin of concerns, a weighing of options, a draft of adoptions, a round of talks, a dotting of points, a joining of dots, a minute of dissenters, an hour of assenters, an amendment of MPs, a ground of deflections, a chamber of reflections, a bend of faces, a dart of distempers, a stumble of blocks, a sprint of efforts, a glimmer of hopes.
Delhi, August 26, 2011: a swell of hopes, a pool of regrets, a high of lows, a hum of sighs, a swing of moods, a flight of doves, a dive of hawks, a suspicion of twists, a twist of suspicions, a coil of doubts, a loss of gains, a gain of losses.
Delhi, August 27, 2011: we are a collectivity of nouns in ourselves. We think, speak, behave in ways that reflect all of nature’s beings, not necessarily at their most elevated. A pride of lions sauntering across India would marvel at the bio-diversity of our conduct. And sighing, move warily forward.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal