I recently read an interesting article about battling terrorism from an international base in Djibouti. Many African nations have joined those from Europe and North America in trying to protect vulnerable villages from the ravages of violent extremism.
However, as readers of Mere Inkling know, we don’t deal with political matters here. Everyday life, yes. Writing and self-expression, of course. Faith, definitely. Imagination, most certainly. Current events are also on the table for consideration, insofar as they relate to the aforementioned subjects.
Politics though, as a subject in and of itself, is not on the Mere Inkling menu.
With that in mind, I want to share a passage from the Air Force magazine article. In a description of “a recent personnel recovery mission in Ethiopia,” it says,
The HC-130s landed at night on a pitch-black airstrip, but first had to make a “clearing pass” to scare a congress of baboons and a pod of hippopotamuses off the runway.
Quite a picture. However, the image itself only made part of the impression left on me by this sentence. More lasting was the reminder of what a group of baboons is called.
C.S. Lewis wrote a fascinating essay about government entitled “Democratic Education.” One of many of its many kernels of wisdom is this: “Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.”
Returning to the subject of animals, the second chapter of Genesis tells us,
Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed[f] every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.
So, Adam named the animals, and I imagine that after her creation, Eve helped her husband refine some of those appellations. What I don’t know is this—exactly who decided how we label groups of the same species?
I would point out how apropos baboons being referred to as a “congress” is . . . except for two considerations. (1) The connection would be lost on many readers whose governments have parliaments, and (2) It turns out this is actually an error. The actual word for baboon bands is a “troop.” So much for their unfortunate association with an organization that has lost the confidence of nine out of ten Americans.
Here are a few of the familiar and unfamiliar collective nouns for a variety of animals, with some brief comments and questions.
Lions | Pride – Aptly named!
Prairie Dogs | Coterie – I never considered prairie dogs snobbish.
Kittens | Intrigue – I should have learned that from simple observation.
Finches | Charm – They really do, don’t they?
Wombats | Wisdom – Wisdom to Aussies, a mystery to me.
Pekingese | Pomp – Well, perhaps just slightly elitist.
Cobras | Quiver – Logical, given the prospect of meeting a group of vipers.
Peacocks | Ostentation – Much nicer than the “pride” option.
Barracudas | Battery – Same as electric eels, I suppose.
Crows | Murder – A term familiar to most literary folk.
Bullfinches | Bellowing – Huh? Sounds more hippopotamusish.
Cows | Kine – Have to thank the medieval English for this one.
Seabirds | Wreck – Beware when they fly overhead.
Bacteria | Culture – And what kind of civilization have they ever built?
Deer | Gang – Must be the teenagers, before they become a herd.
Cockroaches | Intrusion – Accurate, repulsive and ominous.
Guillemots | Bazaar – What’s a guillemot, and what is it selling?
Cormorants | Gulp – Didn’t their momma’s teach them to chew?
Cheetahs | Coalition – Wouldn’t “a ‘sprint’ of cheetahs” sound better?
Woodpeckers | Descent – Am I missing something here?
Clams | Bed – Not much else to do in the clam-world.
Turtledoves | Pitying – Meaning they take pity on us, not vice versa.
Bobolinks | Chain – Cute, but lost on Americans where they’re known as reedbirds or ricebirds.
Snails | Walk – Someone’s lacking a bit in creativity here.
Ravens | Unkindness – Speaking of unkind, who labeled them this?
Flamingoes | Stand – Come on now, isn’t that a bit obvious?
Giraffe | Tower – I guess the flamingoes aren’t the only ones.
Lice | Flock – That is way too nice a word for those vermin!
Alligators | Congregation – As a pastor, I simply don’t want to go there.
This is way too much fun, but I’d better stop now so I can revisit this theme in a year or so. Until then, if you learn who gave that unkind name to groups of ravens, let me know.