Brow Beat

Follow Friday: A Crowd-Sourced Lab for Collective Nouns

A murder of crows gathers around a jar of water on a street in Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia


Collective nouns are the free radicals of the English language. Funny, lyrical, and bizarre ones pop up like mushrooms (like a troop of mushrooms), sometimes in the broad daylight of the New York Times. Among my colleagues here at Slate, Melonyce McAfee is particularly fond of a “murder of crows,” Josh Levin has a soft spot for a “school of fish,” Jeremy Stahl prefers a “gaggle of geese,” and Anna Weaver loves a “passel of pigs.” A twitter feed consisting solely of neat collective nouns should be wildly popular, right?

Though the hashtag #collectivenouns is alive and well, the delightful Twitter account @collectivenouns, which compiles CNs “that may or may not have found their way into the Oxford English Dictionary,” has lain dormant since December 12. @Collectivenouns is the twitter feed of the UK-based website All Sorts; by appending #collectivenouns to a tweet, you can suggest any noun X for a group of Ys, and the site will keep track of your recommendation.

@Collectivenouns used to retweet the best of these, from the timely (a “kettle of protestors”) to the ageless (an “objection of prudes”). But now—life is hard, I know—you have to keep refreshing a #collectivenouns search if you crave quirky phrases to weave into your everyday conversation.

So I have decided to harness the power of Follow Friday to do some good in the world. Though All Sorts has already given us a treasure trove of CNs (the Semite in me loves both a “feh of Jews” and a “deutschbag of Nazis”), there remains an ocean (a dazzle? a predicament?) of nouns out there that still need interesting collectives. Like politicians. Or swing-state voters. Or hot air balloons. (A hot-air balloon of politicians, perhaps?).

Here’s a sampling (a soupçon? a whizbang?) of the site’s greatest hits to inspire you. Think of professions—like a “cascade of web designers,” a “brace of orthodontists,” or a “quantum of physicists.” You can wax poetic (a “glitter of Twinkies,” a “pinwheel of browser tabs”) or go blue (a “schlong of bratwursts”). Puns and wordplay are welcome (“a madeus of Mozarts,” a “fuck of ewes,” a “heard of homonyms”), as are personal attacks (a “keanu of bad actors”). One of my personal favorites: a “smug of Mac users.”

The best @collectivenouns entries are startling, specific, and true all at the same time. I can’t get an “armada of washing machines” or a “seemingly empty room of ninjas” out of my head.

Maybe some loving pressure from the Internet is exactly what the bongful of slackers behind this brilliant account needs to start tweeting again. I hope so.